Saturday, May 07, 2005

Historical volcano eruptions

Even against the backdrop of molten lava, seismic quakes and pent-up sexual energy, Lucinda Coxon’s new play Vesuvius feels disappointingly anticlimactic. It’s not for lack of gravitas: the play skirts the Really Big Issues of life, death and the individual’s sense of meaning in an unfathomably existential universe. But when a play so cerebral and eloquent doesn’t deliver intellectually, it’s hard not to feel cheated. If this were a laugh-a-minute gag fest it wouldn’t matter. But, damn it, Pliny the Younger is referenced, and that can’t help but elevate anything to the loftiest of levels.

Woman (Natacha Roi) is an English forensic anthropologist on a working holiday at the base of Mount Vesuvius, attempting to bring some closure to the bones of three people entombed in the volcano’s A.D. 79 eruption. Man (Tony Ward) is an Australian geologist researching a book on predicting volcanic eruptions. But what’s really brought them to one of Europe’s only active volcanoes isn’t science as much as ghosts. She’s nearing 40, is haunted by the death of her younger brother and fears that her potential offspring may be born with Down Syndrome.

He’s haunted by unknown children and the memory of a young American he met years earlier at the volcano. Both are high-strung, intolerant, and grappling with issues of mortality and meaning tense, to say the least. Ultimately, of course, these two polar opposites recognize their shared humanity and the fragility and awesome mystery of life. But it feels too precious for a play about sexual and geological eruptions; events unfold like a dainty English tea party.

Bitchen sound effects aside, it rarely feels explosive or primal. Only when the specter of 9/11 surfaces and with it the potent reminder that death can happen in the space between two heartbeats does dramatic urgency manifest. It’s hard to argue with Coxon’s main point: as fucked as it may feel at times, all we have is life but though the play succeeds as well-intentioned, and well-spoken, art, its lack of gripping action and unifying vision makes it fail as compelling theater.

Still, in a time when most art is wholly unconcerned with meaning and depth, perhaps the fact it’s possible to walk away from Vesuvius wishing it had more combustion is a victory of sorts. At least it tries.

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