Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre
For the sake of my mental health and blood pressure, I have made a conscious effort to eliminate from my life those rabid rightwing conservatives in general and frighteningly clueless Trump supporters in particular, so the concept of sitting captive in a darkened theatre listening to such deluded folks rant and rave initially kept me from responding to cover the LA premiere of Heroes of the Fourth Turning at the Matrix.
The stunned positive reaction to the production, along with the fact that Will Arbery’s play was a Pulitzer finalist and that it’s being presented by the ever-courageous Rogue Machine directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos made me reconsider, albeit not without a heap of trepidation.
I’m too old, too damn tired, and constantly feeling defeated after a long life spent fiercely fighting for justice and equality, especially when the election of an IQ-challenged, ego-driven conman as the leader of the western world made me snap awake to how blind I’d been for years living in our insular left-coast bubble and not realizing how many Morlocks are still crawling out of the primordial ooze in the parts of A’murka I basically only fly over.
It’s a major understatement to say my disappointment with the current backsliding state of our species has made me more intolerant than I’m proud to admit, so putting myself through two intermissionless hours forced to listen to ultra-conservative blatter onstage wasn’t easy for me. Thankfully I did, however, as Arbery’s bold and unbending Heroes is one of the most important and intriguing productions to be mounted in LA this year, hopefully soaring to the top of every list when it comes to award consideration at the end of the year.
Featuring a knockout cast appearing as a group of longtime friends and graduates of a small conservative Catholic college in a town of 7,000 in western Wyoming who gather in a backyard to celebrate the inauguration of the mother of one of them as the school’s new president (played by the phenomenal Roxanne Hart), the play’s opening scene immediately warns its audience it might become even more difficult to sit through than already anticipated.
As Justin (the Marlboro Man-like Stephen Tyler Howell, who could follow Toby Keith as spokesperson for the Wounded Warrior Project) sits silently alone on the back porch of his rustic cabin, a rustling in the woods makes him stealthily grab his hunting rifle and fire on a huge buck, the subsequent scene proving to possibly be even more disturbing than the teenage girls’ emotionless dispatching of a feral cat in the Douglas’ current Our Dear Dead Drug Lord that made more than one patron admit to nearly bolting for the exit.
It’s as though Arbery is saying, “If you think this is hard to watch, just wait,” and honestly, when the lights come up on the second scene, it doesn’t take long to wonder who the real monster is in his tale of people whose deeply held beliefs are even more upsetting than something that could make any animal lover squirm.
The time is August, 2017, a week after the notorious Charlottesville riots that should have better alerted us what to expect some three years later when the same misled asswipes tarnished the image of democracy forever.
Teresa (Evangeline Edwards), the seemingly put-together alpha of the group, is elated and emboldened by believing her like-minded troglodytes are ready to take up arms for their cause, something suggested in William Strauss and Neil Howe’s 1997 book The Fourth Turning, which chronicles the authors’ belief that, over the past four centuries, we have gone through four definite cyclic generational transformations.
Strauss and Howe propounded the culminating fourth shift would happen from 2005 to 2020 and would send our country into a secular crisis that only “heroes” like Teresa—and her personal guru Steve Bannon, who championed the book—could make right again, even if it meant going to war to bring western civilization back to following the conservative Christian ideals they always mistakenly insist our country was founded upon.
“We’re in danger of being culturally lobotomized,” Teresa sermonizes early on in the proceedings, and she believes Donald Trump has “come to save us all,” a statement so full of triggers that, after several previous performances, Edwards and her costars have learned to pause and wait for the delayed reaction of their gobsmacked audience.
The skewed ideology of Arbery’s characters would be impossible to buy if delivered by five lesser actors. This striking ensemble, under Cienfuego’s sturdy and obviously uncompromising direction, rises above and deftly overcomes the script’s stereotypical behavior that could be deadly in less talented hands.
Teresa is the scariest of the five comrades, resembling an intelligent Lauren Boebert who‘s surprised that being called Machiavellian was “said like it’s a bad thing.” Edwards gives a creepily convincing performance that’s chilling to behold—chilling that she can smoothly make us accept someone so bright could actually buy into the twisted things she expounds.
The most memorable moments in Heroes come from the volatile clash between Edwards as Teresa and the remarkable Hart as Gina, the nurturing lifelong academic who, although a straight-on immobile conservative, slowly realizes how shocking and dangerous her former student’s views have become. She eventually loses her professional cool and shocks herself when she accuses Teresa of “whoring yourself to popular opinion.” Gina is written with a quickly evolving character shift that Hart delivers with dazzling expertise.
Emily James is heartbreaking as her bedridden daughter, whose frailty does not stop her from expressing her disapproval of Teresa’s nonstop vitriol, her arguments leading her uber-confident sparring partner to lament that “Nobody knows how to debate anymore”—that is to say if the other person isn’t listening to and agreeing with her.
Howell is so convincing, so quietly compelling as a stiff-backed countrified redneck that it’s hard to imagine what a gifted actor he must be to play such a standard manly good ol’ boy-in-training until Justin’s stoic exterior begins to unravel and it’s clear he has sincere doubts about what’s being sermonized to those gathered.
The most arresting performance comes from Samuel Garnett as the friends’ weakest link, the lost and troubled Kevin, someone Teresa continues to tease is “just a pale American soy boy.”
As a guy with loser written all over him who woefully observes, “Everything’s so nice it’s stressful!” and finds his own lack of personal commitment so grim he drinks himself into tossing his lunch into the campfire, Garnett is simply astounding. He delivers an incredibly brave, jaw-droppingly quirky and risky turn that heralds a truly original actor whose career it'll be interesting to watch emerge.
Still, with all this talent from a cast sure to win awards, led by a brilliant director and with the contribution of a crew of dynamic designers, it’s Will Arbery’s fascinating and alarming script that steals the show, delivering a treatise as only someone himself raised by conservative Catholic educators who taught in a similar school in Wyoming and held the same persuasive yet wretched viewpoint could. He’s had Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign jingle stuck in his head since childhood and felt the need to explore and sort out the “poetic, passionate, and nuanced” beliefs his family pounded into his head—and to do it with empathy.
“Isn’t the stage a platform for its characters, and isn’t a platform a tacit endorsement?” he asks, “or is my play somehow a condemnation? Where do I end and the characters begin? I can call this a fly-on-the-wall experience, or an exercise in patience, or a symposium. But to be honest, I think I’m after something a little more dangerous.”
Dangerous indeed is Heroes of the Fourth Turning—dangerous, disquieting, and incredibly thought-provoking. Like Trump, Bannon, Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and their zombie army, the coolly treacherous Teresa is the most frightening self-proclaimed hero of this particular fourth turning, someone so sure of her drastically backward convictions that the rest of us are all in continuous potential peril.
When Emily tells Teresa she’s sorry about her mother going off on her, she cheerfully answers, “Don’t be… that was fun.” It seems the true thinkers in our society are the people who sometimes reconsider and wonder if they should reexamine their opinions and beliefs. It’s the zealots who are convinced they are right and are without question the chosen people.
But be reassured: by the end of Will Arbery’s outstanding but unnerving Heroes of the Fourth Turning, each and every character—even Teresa—realizes he or she has no real emotional connection with any of the others.
That’s the consequences of hate, I guess.
THROUGH OCT. 16: Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Av., LA. 855.585.5185 or roguemachinetheatre.net