War is no picnic for the participants, but the latest double bill by Oz playwright Daniel Keene emphatically contends it’s equally hellish for those on the sidelines. Auds will also feel discomfort, though not always the kind the playwright envisaged. Going under the collective title “The Serpent’s Teeth,” the two one-act ensemblers — “Citizens” and “Soldiers” — each run less than an hour, sharing a thematic inter-relationship and a double duty cast, but both plays have individual identities.
With a gray brick wall forcing a narrow path scattered with rocky debris close to the stage’s edge and a cast of characters with Arabic names, opening gambit “Citizens” alludes to a non-specific Middle East crisis.
Yet, with the first characters to parade across the stage — old man Rasid (John Gaden) and his silent grandson Tariq (Josh Denyer), surreptitiously transporting an olive tree by wheelbarrow to an undisclosed destination — the play swiftly adopts an absurdist atmosphere that likens this wall to the eternal, metaphoric road in “Waiting for Godot.”
Following them is old man Basim (Peter Carroll), who comically falls over en route to the funeral of the brother he has hated for 27 years. He is the clearest example that the play’s humor is more glib bluff than ironic truth realized.
Fortunately the characters following Basim are more subtle. Ordinary acts, however, feel bizarre as characters furtively refer to curfews and the people on “the other side.” The glaring exceptions to the absurdist tone are three youths scouring for rocks to use in their slingshots against unnamed oppressors. In the context, their actions seem quite sane.
Using humanitarianism as the play’s mortar, “Citizens” plays with the idea that love is possible in the shadow of war. More stridently, however, the deafening aircraft noise that punctuates the end of both plays grimly decrees war will eventually destroy everything.
“Citizens” may be buoyed by absurdism, but companion piece “Soldiers” is burdened by the speechifying traditions of Depression era left-wing theater. Set in an airplane hangar, the drama depicts the stilted musings of families attending the official return from Baghdad of five dead servicemen. The cavernous room acts as respite from the sun, and a place to grieve away from official eyes. The intermingling mourners’ shared grief frequently segues to rage, which is inflicted carelessly on others.
Director Tim Maddock schematically moves his thesps around the stage so the characters, never reach beyond cipher level, spouting alternate bouts of cynicism and hopelessness. While the pontificating agitprop format is clearly deliberate, and the set designed to emphasize the mourners’ ennui, it prevents emotional connection beyond the knowing nods of an aud already in agreement with its politics.
Only Gaden’s perf as grieving father Tom Lewis fully transcends the confining stylistics (and the deadening acoustics of the overwhelmingly empty stage) to approach the preceding play’s humanism. And there’s a wordless moment involving a boy with a model airplane, Jack Lewis (Denyer again), and a bereaved mother (Pamela Rabe, who also directs “Citizens”) that has more eloquence than all the self-serving speeches in “Soldiers.”
The collective title, comes from a line in “Citizens” which declares that “Every tear is a serpent’s tooth.”