A small crowd showed up for Claudia Stevens’ one-woman performance Dreadful Sorry Guys in Bremer Theatre on Monday night. The stage is humbly set with an old piano, four black chairs and an assortment of hastily strewn wigs, flowers and clothes. The lights go out and Stevens croons reverberating, chilling notes offstage – primal, visceral noises that make the spectators shift a little uneasily in their seats. Handed out upon entrance to the theatre was a pamphlet describing the show: an exploration of “the universal human impulse to destroy those different from ourselves; the attempt to create spin, express collective guilt when it is too late; and the dilemma of the artist attempting to give expression to the “inexpressible”…emptiness and loneliness of a world without diversity.” The murder of Stevens’ childhood friend Gary and his lover Winfield inspired the work.
The lights come on and Stevens begins her story, narrating the phone call she received from her mother the day Gary was murdered. She works her way stoically but sturdily through her childhood, describing her formative years in the “Shasta Cascade Wonderland!” of California, a seemingly picture-perfect tight-knit town evoking imagery of mainstream conservatism. She says that people were suspicious of her horticulturalist friend Gary, who dedicated his life to beautifying the town through flowers and other plant life. Of the townspeople, she says they liked him but thought, “Gary liked plants and people so much. Perhaps a little too much.”
This is the start of Stevens’ insightful commentary on man’s ease in blacklisting those who are different. She tells of the day he and his lover were found naked and shot to death in Gary’s bed, victims of the wrath of a pair of homophobic brothers – the Williams brothers, members of the World Church of the Creator. Stevens reflects on it all: “You can close your eyes, but you can’t close your ears.” She delves into an eerie hypothetical account of the scene in which Gary and Winfield were killed, describing the voicemail message the murderers forced Gary and Winfield to leave on their answering machine. It read said something about their having gone on vacation because they were “sick, very sick” and “you know what that means”. Stevens evokes tears and a twisting stomach in this scene in which the murderers play torturous games with Gary and Winfield to prolong their suffering.
Throughout the play Stevens sporadically returns to the story of Gary but goes on to incorporate some other kaleidoscopic figures – all authentic, intriguing accounts of people she has researched. Each character is different from his community and is thus either emotionally or physically targeted. She addresses the “after-the-fact” guilt, through which man attempts to reconcile his guilty conscious with the reality of the crimes he has committed against those different from him.
She identifies man’s uncomfortable feeling of “contempt for that which one has destroyed.” Stevens portrays this complication through Ishi, an Indian who lived with perhaps only four other people in the mountains for fifty years after his people were chased out and decimated by the Shasta Cascade Wonderland townspeople. She speaks of his re-entry into “society” and his treatment as an enigmatic social marvel. In tribute possibly to her parents’ survival through the Holocaust as Jews in Europe, she chronicles the story of an aged Jewish Russian soldier who returns home from fighting in World War II to find that all his friends and family in the town have been killed by the Nazis. It is an eclectic group that Stevens brings to the table. Through each character, she presents heart-wrenching stories of loneliness and isolation and of collective hatred and its mortal effects upon other human beings. Stevens reflects upon civilization and the implications of our actions on both others and ourselves.
Stevens performs the entire show by herself, interspersed with vocals, piano and, of course, dialogue. When asked why she decided to make it a one-person show, she says that she tried to get others to perform with her but after months of waiting, she decided to just go ahead and do it herself. Of her stories, Stevens asserts, “Nothing is invented.” She has garnered all her information from personal accounts or outside research. The story of the Russian soldier was based on a newspaper article. Of it she says, “I couldn’t help myself – I had to have that story.”
Dreadful Sorry Guys is only one of the many events planned for Art Mix 2005-2006. Set to come to Colgate are various artists, filmmakers, writers and performers. The events are co-sponsored by academic departments and programs supported by the Dean of Faculty. The Art Mix is a product of Colgate’s Strategic Plan Committee on the Arts. The Mix will provide opportunities for direct interaction between the visiting artists and students. The Art Mix events are not meant just for art concentrators. Mary Ann Calo, Chair of the Strategic Plan Committeee on the Arts, is hopeful about the widespread impact the Art Mix will have on Colgate, “One of the things we want to emphasize with Art Mix is that in addition to providing unique experiences, the arts are also broadly interdisciplinary. When you attend an arts event you engage on lots of different levels. The arts expand your way of looking at the world and thinking about the things that go on in it.” Heralded by the performance of Stevens, each artist is sure to make a comparable splash on the scene.