By Cory Bilicko
What constitutes being “civilized?” Who gets to speak up and decide what the rules are, and why do we (most of us, anyhow) end up following those rules? Who’s wrong, and who’s right?
These are the philosophical questions posed by The Conjugated Beliefs of Usallica, the first play by Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Co-Artistic Director Denis McCourt, who wrote it two years ago for the Mario Fratti-Fred Newman Political Playwriting Contest and is now helming it in The Expo’s back-room theatre.
In the absurdist production, when the organized mob of 11 black-garbed characters first grandly marches single-file onto the stage with crude percussion instruments and horns, amidst a chaotic and hodgepodge set, it’s hard to determine what’s in store for the audience.
In the first of four acts, which is dedicated to the notion of “tooting one’s own horn,” Vanessa Rose Parker and Mark Schroeder literally engage in some provocative horn-tooting, but not before exploring its acceptability and its numerous social ramifications, including those resulting from the flirtatious possibilities. They work through the apprehension of tooting their own horns to eventually realize the liberation and ecstasy that come with saying “To Hell with it!”
The language in the act is sparse; the actors are mostly dependent on their faces and bodies to convey a wide range of feelings: shame, anxiety, disgust and exultation, to mention a few. Parker and Schroeder certainly prove they’ve got the technical moxie to pull it off.
Act Two begins with a slightly different reprise of the character march. This time, Rocky Bonifield (yes, a very female Rocky) is “marching to the beat of her own drum.” This aberration is met with disapproval, and even ridicule, from the other cast members. When she explains incredulously and sadly that she’d figured she could march to the beat of her own drum since the other two had just decided it was okay to toot their own horns, her sheer heartbreak is so moving, it’s hilarious.
Since The Conjugated Beliefs of Usallica is Theatre of the Absurd and there are certainly elements of experimentation, it’s not likely that discussing the end of the play will necessitate a spoiler alert, but some vagueness is probably a good idea anyway. Act Four ends with an exercise of sorts during which the actors hold up a mirror (of sorts) to the audience. It’s almost a test– to see if the audience has registered the point of the play. But it also serves as a method to put McCourt’s “message” immediately into action. What would be the “civilized” manner in which to behave in such a situation? What are the rules? What’s the right thing to do?
During the particular performance that my friend and I attended, after a moment of self-consciousness during this fourth-act experiment, the giggles took over. We initially tried to stifle them, since that is what is expected in our civilized society. However, the more we tried to smother them, the more frantic and uncomfortable we felt. When I myself said “To Hell with it” and finally succumbed to the full-on belly laugh that had been building up inside, I too felt liberated, just like the characters who’d resolved themselves to their horn toots.
Post-curtain call, as we exited “stage left” (or so it seemed, since we’d been unexpectedly cast as characters in the show), my companion exclaimed her enjoyment of Usallica. In fact, she wanted me to write that, despite the numerous shows we’ve seen in the last few years (including a Tennessee Williams play that featured one of her favorite actors), The Conjugated Beliefs of Usallica is the best show she’s seen in recent memory. Considering the demonstrable catharsis I experienced from it, I’d say that’s not such an absurd notion.
The Conjugated Beliefs of Usallica will continue to ponder the absurdities of our society at The Expo Backroom Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave., through Aug. 21. Performances begin at 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2pm on Sundays. Tickets, which are $20 general admission, $10 for students with valid ID, are available at lbshakespeare.org or by calling (562) 997-1494.