A Walk on the Pedantic Side Up ‘Cyprus Avenue’

And now, back to your regularly-scheduled programming: the big finish to my Cyprus Avenue trilogy!

For those just joining us:

Click here to read Part 1.

Click here to read the intermediary sequel.

To wrap it all up, I want to start by delving into a concept merely touched upon near the conclusion of Part 1, quoted here for reference:

  • “The resulting deficit in laughter doesn’t just prevent the audience from engaging throughout; it also fails to hammer home one of the play’s most important messages. By design, the chuckles are supposed to transition to horror, a bait-and-switch turned against the audience reminding them that finding the craziness of Trump’s more-harmless shenanigans (and those like him) even moderately amusing underestimates how quickly comedy can turn into tragedy (almost bordering on the theatre of cruelty by its conclusion). Treating any part of such vulgarity as nothing more than a joke, and as anything less than a grave harbinger of the damage they’re capable of inflicting, can usher in devastating consequences.” Trump supporters — or even his opposers who believe he’s not that much of a threat — must willfully ignore the risk posed to others who aren’t in such privileged positions. To maintain this cognitive dissonance, the privileged must decide that their view of the world, and of ALL humanity, trumps the opinions of those who legitimately feel like they’re being threatened. This notion takes on added resonance in a theatre. Since the play is basically an externalization of the main character’s warped mind (played by Stephen Rea), the intrinsic fictionality of everything onstage reaffirms how he views everyone in his life like pawns, not humans. Basically, he sees them like writers — and audiences — see fictional characters: as devices to make greater points. Rea treats his granddaughter — who acts as a sort of symbol of the new world order of diversity he so desperately wants to kill (literally) — like nothing more than a doll. Guess what? A doll signifies her onstage! That’s the danger of treating life like art and entertainment (kind of like our reality-TV-star-in-chief who judges his life based on how many people are paying attention to him); we can too easily forget there are real stakes outside the confines of the theatre that is our life. Our worlds are inherently limited by the bounds of our inner consciousness and corporeality. If the play’s humor was as consuming as it should be, the audience having their laughter turned on them in the end would reinforce this point; we think it’s all fun and games until somebody dies. But we should be able to come to that realization before any intolerance-fueled bloodshed, and such epiphanies can be provided through art like Cyprus Avenue.
  • Lizzie Clachan’s set serves as a constant reminder that , as I wrote above, “the play is basically an externalization of the main character’s warped mind”. Her all-white aesthetic connects to the fact that much of the play exists in his white mind, a reflection of the world he wants to live in. The ceiling looks like the side of a jail or a cage, as if he’s a prisoner of his own closed-mindedness. The carpet is equally white, but it’s dirtied up over the course of the play. Importantly, it is only the characters with abhorrent beliefs that drag this mud and blood onto the stage. They pollute their own world, and delude themselves into seeing it as cleaner. One final point regarding the set: it splits the audience in two, positioned on either side of the stage. More than just speaking to the divisive nature of Rea’s politics, this arrangement ensures that, in relation to each other, each half is oriented from “the other side of the track” that is the stage, and yet we’re all equal. That’s the beauty of theatre; it brings different people together to share in a communal experience. In this setting, we’re all connected, no matter our differences. Based on where we’re sitting/our positions in life, we might have different perspectives on the art representing life before us, but we’re all experiencing the same thing, even if we have different takeaways. That diversity is the beauty of life, and art.   
  • Whoever programmed the production in the Public’s LuEsther Hall is a genius, because, like Clachan’s set, it’s also predominantly white. You know, because so much of the history of Western Art has been dominated by white people, perpetuating such suffocatingly-oppressive narratives against others.
  • Rea’s meaningful contributions to the production can’t be understated. The play begins with him slinking onstage, meek, looking a bit confused, but also with a childlike curiosity regarding his surroundings. There’s a palpable sense of awkwardness and insecurity to the demeanor with which he moves around the room, an indicator of his general discomfort with what the world has become. He doesn’t know his place anymore; the identity politics that helped him order the world back in the day are changing too rapidly for him to understand. And instead of just admitting his own confusion, he declares this progress is wrong, thus making his conservatism correct. He transforms from a reticent adult into a petulant child, whizzing around the stage like a kid high off the energy of his own hatred. He’s always hunched over, as if he feels the weight of this new world order on his shoulders, and he feels the equal weight of responsibility to defend the old one. Yet this weakness fades away the minute he opens his mouth to share his beliefs. His diarrhea-of-the-mouth attempts to impose reliable order on the chaos of modernity. Perhaps his insecurity reveals his creeping suspicion that his obstinately-held worldview is nothing more than an arbitrary product of his era. The best way to silence such doubts: keep spewing your retrograde hatred. His pontificating is his attempt to silence his fears from overwhelming his consciousness (they creep into his speech every so often, particularly when he wonders if he’s the same as those he considers deplorable “others”). Whether Rea purposefully made his eyes look dead inside, or if that comes naturally to him and it’s just perfect casting, we’ll never know.
  • He states midway through the play, “To be sure, or not to be sure, that is the question?” What a fantastic illustration of the difference between proponents of diversity and those against it. Diversity exposes us to the perspectives of others, which can often conflict with how we believe the world works, since those beliefs are primarily a result of our own limited experiences. When you spend your whole life believing one worldview to be true, and then the world complicates that by presenting other worldviews, you have a choice to either A) be unsure of yourself, and leave open the possibility that you could’ve been misinformed this whole time, or B) decide you’re sure you’re correct, and thus declare that everyone else is wrong. Guess which answer Rea goes with.
  • Rephrasing Shakespeare’s famous quote also emphasizes the role that the past plays to these sorts of people. They learned how the world works through classic texts, thus they often shut out any new sources of knowledge. The “Again” in “Make America Great Again” explicitly states that sometime in the past was superior to right now (would someone tell me when marginalized folks in the past had more rights than they do today? I’ll wait). Highlighting their obsession with glorifying history, almost everything the audience witnesses in Cyprus Avenue takes place in the past; the play consists of Rea, in the present, relaying his recent past to us. In this way, the play literalizes his existence; we see him literally living in the past, recounting his own memories. Because when the world moves on from those not willing to keep up, what else are they left with?
  • He tells his psychologist that he spoke with an angel. When we see that scene play out, he’s alone onstage (even the psychologist leaves). Basically, his angelic moment, his heaven, his ideal, is being alone onstage monologuing, without anyone around to call out his bullshit (even the character that shares most of his beliefs refuses to agree with him on everything).
  • Killing a baby onstage will obviously upset some people — by design; upsetting matters tend to linger with audiences more if they leave upset — but a dead baby is obviously a potent metaphor for how such turgid dogma can poison future generations.

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