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The Scarlet P

Susan Karrie Braun appears to be obsessed with the letter A. She's taken the classic nineteenth-century Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, The Scarlet Letter, in which the initial worn on a young woman's chest stood for adultery, and updated it to signify AIDS in a performance art/play/polemic called 'A' Scarlet Letter, currently on display at the Cuban Museum of Art and Culture. In Braun's own life, A stands for activist. Her undergraduate thesis for U. Mass was titled "Activism in Early Twentieth Century Art Movements," and since founding the Miami Arts Asylum in 1990, she has produced and guided numerous visual and performance artists, tackling such sociopolitical themes as censorship in the arts, abortion, and abuse.

Problem is, after viewing the mishmash made of Hawthorne here, I've been stuck on the letter P. Preachy, pretentious, pompous, ponderous. And, above all, politically correct.

Artistically correct, however, is a horse of a different hue.
There's little doubt Braun is ambitious and an excellent organizer of special events. As an assistant on Michael Dukakis's gubernatorial campaign, she wrote a speech that included the famous, catchy quote, "...like many of my fellow Americans, I, too, am the son of immigrants." The line was good enough to warrant repeating when the Massachusetts governor ran for president in 1988. Braun has held such positions as "Governor of Massachusetts Statehouse Fellow"; she has told me about upcoming projects ranging from a low-budget film to another full-length play and a TV show. Merely assembling the large staff needed to present this latest production is an achievement worthy of praise.

Undoubtedly she means well, but unfortunately the path to hell (and bad theater) is paved with good intentions. Braun's straddling two worlds: art and politics. If 'A' Scarlet Letter is any indication of her abilities -- her credits for this project are listed as writer, director, curator, production designer, and producer -- I'd say Washington needs her a lot more than Broadway. Her fundamental concept for the piece reeks of grandiose visions; Herculean gifts would be required to pull off such a feat. But nary an element, from writing to acting to artwork, emits the necessary aroma of talent.

From start to finish, in fact, the play is a textbook example of how not to write a play. It is infused with soapbox speeches, lengthy exposition, pedestrian dialogue, confusing plot twists, and an avant-garde sensibility that is bound to be bumbled by anyone short of say, Joyce or Pinter. Fashioned after experimental forms of theater such as the New York offbeat hit Tamara, in which the audience follows the characters from room to room as the plot unfolds, Braun's Scarlet Letter uses the traveling circus device so awkwardly that you feel as though you're being herded from one cerebrally impenetrable maze to another.

It begins outside the museum building, where the audience stands listening to two groups of people chant pedestrian, quasi-poetic lines in mantra fashion. One bunch clearly represents the religious right; they ask you to be blessed by voting "yes" on a special AIDS referendum that would require a public listing of all HIV-positive citizens and would ultimately lead to quarantine from society. The other group, composed of lesbians, gay men, and liberal youths, wants you to understand that they are flesh and blood, and hence to vote "no." The latter are the good guys. The former are the bad guys. Commencing here, everything that ensues is a cliche.

When the actors allow the audience to enter, the crowd is moved to different locales in the gallery, where various scenes of the work take place. Designed by fifteen local artists specifically for the show, bland modern sculptures and paintings serve as sets. The basic story concerns AIDS activist Hester Prynne (all the characters keep their original Hawthornian names, if little else of the master novelist) who has an affair with Arthur Dimmesdale VI, a TV evangelist, even though he supports the fascist referendum and intends to marry a Tammy Faye-like hypocrite, Victoria Dunne. Meanwhile, angels representing victims of the virus chant and light candles in the background. Hester's HIV-positive brother Justin speaks in lines drawn from classic rock tunes (e.g., "Wake up, little Hester") and dies of AIDS soon after the piece begins. When Hester is thrown in jail for insurrection, she discovers from a mandatory prison blood test that she is HIV-positive, as well, courtesy of the Reverend Dimmesdale.

The audience discovers a bit more about Victoria (such as the fact that her father, a rival evangelist, is also a dedicated pederast) before being shifted en masse to a second playing area, where Hester speaks with the ghost of Justin. Sooner than you can say Puritan, it's off to room number three, where Dimmesdale begs Hester's forgiveness and watches, along with the ever-on-the-move audience members, a seminude comic revue condemning intolerance. In this room, plaster phalluses adorn the ceiling and a snotty guard at the door tells you to sit down and shut up.

When the guard throws you out moments later, Victoria waits in a new chamber, a bright space outfitted with video monitors and a television camera. She's there to telecast Dimmesdale's final sermon before the referendum. To her right and left, on twin screens, commercials satirizing Right to Life ads -- in this case, condemning AIDS carriers -- alternate with a jingle-like melody hummed by the faithful flock standing at the back of the room. Dimmesdale finally arrives and blurts out something about Justin and evil demons. Hester makes a speech about society's responsibility toward those in need. The final scene unfolds back in the first room. Hester loses and Victoria wins, society votes against human rights, and the two rival factions yell at each other again.

When the show ended, I felt as though my human rights had returned for the first time in 90 minutes. Being ordered around a humid gallery was not half as irritating as being hammered over the head by a script that tells you what to think, rather than allowing you to feel your own emotions. The heart of good dramatic writing lies in showing, not telling. Condemning the audience for sitting at a play rather than rallying for the rights of AIDS victims A which Braun's script does at several points -- can make a lot of folks turn cold and hostile. Furthermore, the audience is indicted for inaction without once being told what they are expected to do. Medical research? Lobbying? Someone should get off her high perch and make a valid point.

Braun's attempts at black humor won't topple David Mamet or Christopher Durang, either. Although a few sight gags are just ridiculous enough to be amusing, others A such as the principle of ethnic cleansing appearing in the revue as a woman wearing Clorox bottles for breasts -- seem thrown in for shock value and do not contain enough wit to be effective. (But they do contain enough disregard and insensitivity to be offensive.)

The whole disjointed mixture of playwriting, art exhibition, and travel agency suffers another blow from Braun's direction, which forces the actors to speak with false dramatic weight and import, to pick up cues at a snail-like rate, and to alarmingly switch styles, from camp comedy to serious drama. Liz Dennis as Hester and Robin Trapp as Victoria manage to muddle through, by virtue of their sound acting skills. They possess the ability to make awkward dialogue sound semirealistic. But the wooden Ivo Luis Lopez as Dimmesdale and the inexperienced Matt Greene as Justin need solid writing and guidance to help them out. In the absence of either, they are painful to watch.

Politics and art can make suitable bedfellows; some believe, quite justifiably, that all great art comments upon and hopefully influences society. But seldom can the same be said for the union of art and propaganda. Maybe that's why Bill Clinton doesn't whip out his saxophone with such aplomb these days.

Symbolism goes a lot further than sermons. If Braun continues her quest for theater as a route to societal change, I suggest she try a new a-word before she writes another syllable: allegory. It's a better way to get the point across, and would better serve her fine administrative skills. For now, her didactic attempts at creativity in the absence of craft bring to mind arrogance, not activism.


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