Theatrical Potatoes

The potatoes have brains. Two women stand center furiously peeling potatoes, the skins flying every which way. They seem to be preparing dinner for their two husbands, who are out hunting. The common scene is interrupted when one of the women, Bethy, looks more closely at her potato and realizes it has organs and is a sentient being. So the kitchen sink scene is shattered. The other woman, Fern, turns to Bethy and asks her to “kill me and eat me quick, before the men get back” and then tell the men that she ran off with another hunter. She repeats her plea several times before fleeing the stage. Sibyl Kempson's new play, Potatoes of August is a fugue. The program kindly provides both definitions of “fugue”: in music, “a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others, and developed by interweaving the parts.” In psychiatry: “a state or period of loss of awareness of one's identity, often coupled with flight from one's usual environment. . . “ The content and structure of Potatoes of August follow both definitions of fugue. The characters have matching costumes, yet are different people. The opening scenes feature Fern and her husband Buck in their living room, followed by Bethy and her husband Gordon in their living room. When the potatoes speak (accompanied by stop motion video of dancing potatoes), their voices are kind of in unison, but it doesn't match up so that their speech is overlapped and almost indiscernible.

The play is highly theatrical and demonstrates an understanding of theatrical theory. The acting style takes a cue from Bertolt Brecht's alienation effect—the actors' are not emotionally involved in their characters and thus, the audience never becomes so either. Their lines are delivered in banal tones; the acting could be called terrible if you didn't know it was on purpose. There are video projections explaining where the action is taking place. The accompanying songs are melodic, but the voices singing them are terribly off key. Instead of limiting themselves to the stage area, the characters make use of the entire space, running up into the balcony, and around the audience.

The characters' beliefs are thrown into question. Fern lies in her thoughtscape, remembering how people behaved when she was a little girl. Gordon constantly mentions the astronomer Carl Sagan, reminding Bethy of his ideas and principles. Bethy runs around the perimeter of the audience, wondering what is happening, and what is she supposed to be feeling. The show is heavy embedded with philosophy, with a short reading list provided on the back of the program. However, one does not need to be familiar with Swedenborg or Sagan to understand and the enjoy the play.

Potatoes of August will probably be most enjoyed, however, by someone with a background in theater. While there is a linear plot embedded in the play, it is ultimately more about its form. The story comes through and is given a boost by the theatricality of the piece. The piece is very exciting to watch, provided you know what is going on. However, its theatricality may be inaccessible to someone only familiar with the commercial theater and its ilk. Which isn't a bad thing, but it does make one wish that more works of theater would embrace their theatricality instead of simply trying to lamely imitate the movies.

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