“Bash,” written by Neil Labute in 1999, is the must-see play at Theatre UCSB this quarter. The essence of the word “bash” is what Labute wants you to witness in three different monologue one acts, each leaving you more chilled to the bone than the one before. Artsweek got the chance to interview grad student director Marc Shaw about this disturbing quilt of dysfunctional American life woven by four otherwise average All-American Mormons.
Artsweek: What is your connection to “Bash” and to Neil Labute?
Marc Shaw: I went to Brigham Young University, as did Labute. As you know, the subtitle of the play is “Latter-Day Plays,” as in Latter-day saints. I got interested in Labute when I was at BYU because I heard a lot about him. I remember asking professors about him. I got my hands on the script four months after the off-Broadway play was produced with Calista Flockhart and Paul Rudd.
What did you think of the off-Broadway version of “Bash”?
They did a lot of stuff we did, but that we’d already thought of. We did a lot of stuff that I like better. In their version, they don’t move around, and you kind of need that with a monologue. Theater is so much better live – and I saw it on Showtime – especially when it’s done in a small theater because it’s more personal.
What is the significance of “Bash”?
He’s made the point that the Mormon subtext isn’t a comment on Mormonism. He’s not saying that all Mormons are bad just because some of these Mormons in the play are bad. That’s beside the point. Usually if you see a Mormon in a movie or a play, they’re the anomaly and aren’t really seen. Labute is Mormon – and he’s showing Mormons in this bad light – but I think it’s a good thing because he’s showing us these “mainstream” Mormon characters. He uses “Mormon” as a universal term for people who grew up in religious communities in general.
How did you get to direct “Bash”?
Last year two of the actors in this production did “A Gaggle of Saints” as a side project that I put together, and the faculty liked it, so I got to do it this year.
Is “Bash” a commentary on American life and culture to show what is wrong with it?
I think it’s a comment on everyone. It says that even if you have religion, you’re not necessarily a good person. It also makes the point that all of us can do cruel things. Labute shows us the worst, and hopefully we’re rising above that and finding ways to be better people. You can identify with these characters too, especially in “A Gaggle of Saints” because they’re college kids going to a big dance. All the characters are likable – it’s not like they’re scraggly.
What kind of message does “Bash” send out?
I don’t think the play has an obvious message. You have to draw from it. It’s like the elevator doors that open, and then they close, and you think, “Wow, what did I just see?” The real message lies within the characters. We can look at these evil people and understand what they did. Theater is all about being able to walk in someone else’s shoes, trying to understand people and trying to see things as other people see them.
What is it about “Bash” that makes it worth seeing?
My first goal for “Bash” is to create a really good night of theater for people. Hopefully it’s as good theater as you’re going to see at UCSB. Another goal I have for people is to find out about Labute if they haven’t already. The text itself is so good. I think adding the transitions between the three acts isn’t something that Labute would have done, but I wouldn’t be embarrassed for him to see this. The script is so good, the natural rhythms of speech – it’s art, you know, it’s normal talk. That is what makes it so good, but it’s still got this rhythm, and we find ourselves talking in the style.
So, since we can relate to these characters, do we want to excuse their actions?
I wouldn’t say that what they do is okay. They’re not villains; they’re people who do villainous things. Labute gives us the angles, and that’s what makes it beautiful. Labute calls himself an irresponsible optimist. His outlook is often grim, but he has hope for everyone. There isn’t a moral at the end because it’s a subreality. In each one of the three acts, you can see where they could have stopped and nothing bad would have happened. We’re not going to change how they are. In “A Gaggle of Saints” he feels powerless and can’t let it go. Does he do what he does consciously or subconsciously? We don’t know. Or in “Medea Redux,” she’s spurned and dwells on it her whole life. In “Iphigenia,” the guy is caught up in his materialistic life, and that causes his downfall.
What do the names of each of the plays mean?
“A Gaggle of Saints” comes from Labute observing geese. From far away they look really beautiful, until you come up close, and they’re crapping all over the place. The second one, “Medea Redux,” is based on the Greek tragedy of Medea and Redux. “Iphigenia” is also a Greek myth about Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter. All of the characters’ cliches are a mirror of that.
What do you think the word “Bash” refers to?
I think it could refer to the party in “Gaggle,” the big bash. It could also mean gay bashing. And the Latter-day part is because of the Mormon thing and also because they are retelling old myths today, which is the latter-day.