In Traitors, things are not as they seem.
The original script by Tricklock Company member Kristen D. Simpson weaves together the stories of Benedict Arnold, Judas Iscariot and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. On the surface, the play is a reflection on the nature of betrayal, patriotism and forgiveness. But there’s another surprising current that sweeps through the show. Religion is the undertone of the production, and its presence left me more than a little confused.
The structure of the play itself is confusing. Interlacing three storylines always requires some deft sleight of hand. But include in that equation a fourth, overarching storyline; three mysterious and brash guides who make frequent interruptions; nearly constant background chatter and movement by most of the 16 cast members; and a dialogue pacing reminiscent of “Gilmore Girls” on cocaine, and you’re left with, to put it mildly, a lot to process.
The script moves at a frenetic speed—so much so that it’s difficult to keep up. Many of the lines are unintelligible, which ultimately slows down the show. This style of hyperdrive storytelling never quite works, as though saying something really quickly makes it sound more intelligent or insightful. But it doesn’t. And, anyway, if you’re going to write all those words, don’t you want people to hear them?
Traitors is an ambitious project, and it’s easy to see what Tricklock is trying to achieve with the production, but something runs amiss. That brings us back to the issue of religion.
The story of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas is one of the play’s main threads. This in and of itself does not give the show a religious bent. It’s nothing new to use tales, anecdotes and allusions from the Bible to make literary points. But a switch flips in the second half of the show and Traitors begins to feel more sermon than story. I think it’s when Mary Magdalene (played beautifully by Dodie Montgomery) walks right up to the audience and addresses it directly. She says, and I am paraphrasing here, “Let me tell you a story. A man told me he was the son of God. I had a choice—to believe him or not believe him. And now you have a choice—to believe me or not believe me. But he has already chosen you.”
I wondered if I would feel the same way if the story of Gautama Buddha was the central line of the show. Yeah ...
Add to this some audience-directed monologues by Jesus himself and that the Judas/Jesus thread is presented as historical fact, and you’re left wondering—or I was, at least—if there isn’t an ulterior motive. By the end of the show, I felt like someone was trying to convert me.
Free speech is alive and well in American theater, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with putting on a religious play. However, it’s the kind of material I’d expect to see in a church. Running a show like this in a public institution, especially a university, seems in bad taste. Perhaps more importantly, I have to question the direction in which Tricklock is pointed. When did our city’s world-class cadre of theatrical revolutionaries make preaching the Gospel its mission?
I wondered if I would feel the same way if the story of Gautama Buddha was the central line of the show. Yeah ... if characters were imploring us to find room in our collective heart for the teachings of the Mahayana sutras, I would. This isn’t about what religion the show is promoting; it’s the fact that it’s promoting a religion at all. It’s just weird.
Putting that aside, the acting in the show, as is typical for Tricklock, is great. Chad Christensen-Brummett plays Benedict Arnold, and it’s no surprise that he’s fantastic. Christensen-Brummett is always in a league of his own when he’s on stage. He portrays the weary, mad brigadier general with effortless grace. Likewise, Alex Knight, who has the part of Judas Iscariot, continues to prove his considerable talent. His Judas is a cursing, smoking, angry tough guy, and he’s transfixing. The best moments in the show by far are when either Christensen-Brummett or Knight are on stage.
Stephanie Grilo is commanding as Peggy Arnold, Benedict’s wife. And, as previously mentioned, Dodie Montgomery plays Mary Magdalene with conviction and tenderness. I don’t care much for the characters of the three guides (referred to as “II,” “III” and “IV”), who run on the shrill, hyperkinetic side. But despite the script, Hannah V. Kauffmann holds her own as “II.” Without her, and to some extent Barbara Geary, who does a nice job as “IV,” I’m not sure the guides would be palatable. The two actresses’ obvious skills save the characters.
I hold Tricklock to a higher standard than most other theater companies in town, and maybe that’s not fair. But Tricklock has proven itself to be capable of truly great theater, and its member roll is flush with talent. Traitors feels like an anomaly. I’m not sure why the company chose to produce this show. I’m looking forward to what Tricklock decides to tackle next, and I’m hoping that whatever that is speaks to the heart of the company our city knows and loves.