Slap! Or, School for Slaves

By John Chatterton
Trocadero Cabaret
Directed by Ted Mornel
Non-union production (closed)
Review by John Michael Koroly

The quick line on Slap! is that it's got lots of good material in it yet is still in a frustratingly inchoate dramatic form. Its scenario concerns a man and a woman (Jack and Jill) engaged ferociously (perhaps pathologically) in games of sadomasochism. They act out the whippings, cross-dressing, and psychodramas of dominance and submission in a room with a bed, a hotplate for making tea, and a functioning electric chair. They seem to live in fear and loathing of "the old guy" in-the next room (from whom is heard only grunts and Hebrew prayer), who can see them through a peephole in the wall.

As might be gathered from this synopsis, this is not a very accessible work. A playwright needn't spoon-feed his thesis to an audience, but too much here is just plain baffling. There is not enough for a viewer to go on in deciphering where the action is occurring, who is the old man, or what is the greater meaning of it all.

Throughout the script, Chatterton has many lines of thought spiraling out and never reeled in, with a resultant disjointed feel to the whole text. He is at his best, though, in isolated moments of epiphany, when supposedly make-believe lines in an S/M psychodrama take on a reality that gets to the inner truth of the characters in an almost Pirandellian sense. Especially in the man, confusion and panic over sexual identity is projected into a greater paranoia (with accusations of CIA control of everything from the phone company to gynecologists). The denouement seems to imply a sort of death-wish within the S/M compulsion. But, again, this is never made clear enough.

In directing Chatterton's script, Ted Mornel took the material the only place it could go: over the top. Many moments were downright boneshaking, such as his staging of Jack raping Jill with a belt buckle. The inherent problem with this approach, though, is an inevitable lapse into a "Can You Top This?" escalation. This is nowhere more evident than in the grotesque scab makeup Jack wears after Jill scalds his face with water. It's profoundly unsettling, but also terribly distracting. Less charred flesh would have made for more dramatic effectiveness.

Carla Gant's costumes were clever in their pageant of quintessential role-playing couture: girl scout, leather boy, virginal bride. John Velardi's set had a nebulous, otherworldly feel to it. George Cameron's sound design was good and harsh, but his lighting scheme was too bright, where more shadows and reds would have felt more at one with the script.

Also, the small house at the Trocadero made the mimed nature of the whippings and kickings a bit too apparent, and the waiter's taking drink orders throughout the show was distracting, especially for material so intense.

As the man, Mark Hamlet did a strong job of showing the pain within that would make someone want to whip another person. As the woman, Lissa Moira was an engaging enigma, at times a pulsing organ of utter willfulness, at others a wounded faun totally helpless.

Box Score:
Writing 1
Directing 1
Acting 2
Set 1
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 1
Copyright 1996 John Chatterton

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