Stage

The action of the play is weird from the start. While the FBI bombards the Davidians with threats, tear gas, and bad music, the cultists are desperately trying to finish shooting a film on the Old Testament. Outside, Janet Reno (uncannily channeled by Celia Shuman) sits at her desk, coaching the ATF or being interrogated by Congress, while FBI agents aim their semiautomatic rifles on the compound and sing snatches of the Star Trek theme song.

The compound walls are made of three scaffolding frames wrapped with cellophane. Inside are the followers of the guru, here called Frank and played by John Flanagan. The Davidians fight, dance, and engage in questionable behavior with their leader. "Frank told me never to eat a hot dog with anybody else," confesses teen-age Nike (an irrepressibly giddy Sommer Ulrickson). Her mother, in a nuanced performance by Nina Gold, glosses over the dark implication with cutesy sympathy: "Okey-dokey, little bumpy-umpkins."

Frank's antics, sexual improprieties, and arguments with the FBI provide a thin narrative thread upon which Watt hangs gestural layering, film, music, dramatic lighting, and text appropriated from everything from the Bible to congressional testimony. With this barrage of image, sound, and word, Watt frustrates the viewer's desire to make sense of the proceedings. But because the acting is so damned good and the direction so crisp, the unique aesthetic takes on its own narrative weight. That is, it does just what postmodern theater is supposed to do but hardly ever does.

At times the piece founders on its own profusion of ideas, which pile on top of one another too thickly and without sufficient dramatic focus. In depicting the FBI as gun-toting losers and the Koresh figure as an insane child molester, Bake Sale promulgates both anti- and pro-government knee-jerk explanations. But this sort of indiscriminate ambiguity can't replace political insight. Ed Gaible's absurdist patchwork script compounds this problem. People speak in non sequiturs, layering personal babble and biblical quotes over the rare lucid statement. Though Gaible's intention might have been more pointed and less elliptical, more sober and less prurient, his tone is well-suited to Watt's lush, visual style. Just as our newscasters regularly condense a kitten trapped in a tree, a murder, advice on buying a car, and a Third World famine into 15 seconds of pure inanity, Gaible's text pierces our cultural skin and probes the irrationality of our national chatter. The result is a throbbing, convoluted orgy of dogma, go-go dancing, small talk, bureauspeak, amputated gesture, and personal testimonial.

With the anti-narrative texture of MTV and the intellectual voraciousness of high theory, Bake Sale moves forward without sense, but slowly draws you along in its wake. What could have been a tendentious exercise in postmodern hubris Watt and Fifth Floor turn into a tantalizing, provocative ride into the heart of media-engorged America.

-- Carol Lloyd

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