by Daniel Vidor
May 17, 2011
Chaos is represented on stage in almost every single play to varying degrees. Perhaps I am suffering from a bad memory, but when I walked out of the Flea Theater from seeing Just Cause, I could not for the life of me recall another play in which scenes of chaos had been executed as smoothly and dynamically as in this production. Zack Russell’s Just Cause, which he wrote and directed, deserves to be seen as an example of how a cast and crew can live up to a play’s complex literary and staging demands in order to produce a unique piece of theater that is quite often nothing short of being breathtaking.
When the audience enters the basement theater of the Flea, a few members of the cast are in tableau representing a trait of their character. The play then begins with a montage sequence of these young twenty-somethings who live New York either working their miserable day jobs or just sitting at home passing the time. There is Michael, a 26 year old employee of Best Buy; Anna, a bored unemployed college graduate; Helen, a struggling actress/waitress; Tommy, an unemployed musician; and Allison, Tommy’s wife, who works as an assistant to a woman named Blackwater for a security systems company. Although this sequence is stylized, each member of the cast brings humanity and depth to their individual scene so that by the end of the montage we have a good idea as to who these people are.
We then learn that a mysterious trio of powerful people, including Blackwater, selected these people to form a cadre of revolutionaries. Their cause is a mystery to the audience and perhaps to the characters as well. What is apparent though is that these young people have found meaning in each other’s company. In one of the most impressive scenes of the play the newly formed group meets up at Michael’s apartment to drink, party, and presumably discuss their plan of revolutionary action.
What is exhilarating about this scene is the way in which the director and cast are able to believably choreograph the organic nature of a party. Characters speak over one another, conversations break off and then re-emerge, and there is action of various sorts happening on stage. In an amateurish production of this play, this scene could come across as fake and forced. However, under Russell’s confidant staging and his cast’s full-throttle commitment to it, the action on stage is seamless to the point of uncanny authenticity.
The group is under the guidance of a man named August. He is the one who organizes their meetings and influences the decisions they make. He introduces them to Paul, a man with considerable experience in violent revolutionary combat. The stage seems to be set for these characters to embark on a dangerous mission.
However, just as we the audience begin to grasp what is happening, Russell’s script throws out a curve ball, nullifying any predisposed idea we could have had regarding these characters’ intentions. The more we learn, the more we realize that things are not what they appear to be. Russell keeps us constantly unbalanced this way, always on edge for the unexpected to occur. There are moments where characters discuss the political ramifications of their actions, but for the most part this play steers clear from political heavy-handedness. Instead Russell uses his story of an emerging radical terrorist group as a way to examine a collective descent into madness. This is where the focus of Just Cause lies.
In addition to the brilliant staging, it is the fully realized and heartfelt performances that anchor this play. Never do we lose sight of the fact that we are watching real people making drastic decisions. Every actor seems to have created an entire history for the character he/she plays, so that even though we learn little about these people from the script, we have a good idea of where they came from and what they want based on the performances. I was particularly moved by the performances of Wilton Yeung, Alex Herrald, Katherine Folk-Sullivan, and Raul Sigmund Julia. All four actors communicate worlds of emotions and thoughts whether they have dialogue or are just simply present on stage. Everyone however is able to have a memorable moment on stage. Furthermore, the entire cast seems to be in total lockstep with the tone and dramatic momentum of the play. These characters may all be going insane but I cared every step of the way.
Young, Aimless and Primed for a Revolution
by Rachel Saltz
May 20, 2011
The bubble-headed terrorists of Zack Russell’s satiric comedy “Just Cause” at the Flea Theater have no cause, just or otherwise, and no ideology. That’s Mr. Russell’s point. About the only thing they respond to is a slogan as lazy as they are: “Freedom comes to those who love it.”
Mr. Russell, who also directed, calls his play “a response” to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1979 film “The Third Generation.” Funny and cruel, Fassbinder’s movie was interested in political violence at a time when Germany was plagued by a homegrown variety. The title refers to the late-’70s generation of terrorists that, Fassbinder said, “simply acts without thinking.”
“Just Cause,” which retains chunks of the film’s plot, moves the action to present-day New York. Its would-be terrorists — middle-class Brooklynites in their 20s, still supported by Mom and Dad — are recruited and manipulated by a mysterious figure, August (Greg Engbrecht).
They go on raids and choose revolutionary names: “I want to be Carmen Velacruz,” says one, a former student of Latin America (the amusing Katherine Folk-Sullivan). They decide to blow things up: Why not the Empire State Building?, Carmen cheerfully suggests. And for their pièce de résistance they kidnap a woman called Blackwater (Cynthia Whalen), who owns a security-systems business.
The blankness of these terrorists makes them easy prey. They don’t know it, but they’re puppets of August and Blackwater.
Mr. Russell paints an amusing portrait of the young, aimless and entitled. And his play, performed (mostly well) by the Bats, the Flea Theater’s resident troupe, has some of the barely controlled chaos and noisy vitality of Fassbinder’s film.
But if “Just Cause” entertains, it fails to be memorable. Mr. Russell has imported Fassbinder’s plot and politics: “Terrorism is an idea generated by capitalism to justify better defense measures to safeguard capitalism,” Fassbinder said of “The Third Generation.” The context, though, doesn’t translate.
Let loose in Brooklyn, these characters are bored, privileged losers, attracted to danger the way they’d be attracted to a new club: it’s an opportunity to put on a wig and act out. Mr. Russell highlights their cartoonishness. (Fassbinder did too.) But the joke eventually wears thin and seems old-fashioned, even glib. For all his theatrical acumen, Mr. Russell doesn’t really make you believe in the doings onstage.
Just Cause at The Flea Theater
by Suzy Evans
May 19, 2011
Boredom equals death, quite literally, in the Flea’s world premiere of Zack Russell’s “Just Cause.” And who’s more bored than directionless 20-somethings whose parents back their pathetic lives as they follow their so-called passions? However, this play seems almost as confused as the millennials who inhabit it.
Six aimless young people are manipulated into making terrorist threats by a security software company. These threats will create more demand for the company’s programs, thereby boosting its IPO. I never quite understood why these pitiful young people buy into the terrorist plot. Sure, their lives seem pointless. Their careers—college dropout turned Best Buy employee, unemployed Latin American studies graduate, waitress-actress, personal assistant, struggling musician, and young Army vet—are less than glamorous. “Freedom comes to those who love it” is the mantra of the cell—as its conniving leader, August, calls the group—but how does a bomb threat at the Empire State Building equal freedom?
To be fair, the extremes the play presents can be seen as the radical consequences that Generation Next might face as a result of its unfinanced pursuits and technology overload. The double meaning of the title is kind of cute too. These young people do things “just ‘cause,” but at the same time they are looking to commit their lives to a just cause. However, the cause in this case does not seem plausible, and the notion that Generation Y is wasting its existence on unfulfilled passions is hackneyed.
There are some strong performances, particularly by Alex Herrald as Jack and Katherine Folk-Sullivan as Anna. As minor characters Coco the drug addict and the schizophrenic Sister, Allison Buck and Crystal Arnette do a convincing job, but the point of their roles seems somewhat vague, except to act as a jumping-off point for the others. The charades of these young people evolve from real games to a kill-or-be-killed scenario in which bullets are distributed like candy. Life may be a battlefield, but I don’t want to live in one where the bullets are always real.
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