Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dumb Show Smarts: Lucy Gillespie's "Driving: a Lesson"

photos by Brian Hashimoto
“Fucking Paki driving instructor!” 
Lucy Gillespie, as the character Julie, spits out these words in the climactic and penultimate line of her 15 minute Driving: A Lesson. The play premiered on the program of Riant Theatre’s Strawberry One Act Festival at the Theatre at St. Clement’s on August 15.
The minute long denouement that follows takes place in silence as Julie and Ranit (Fawad Siddiqui), the older man she has sworn at, exchange places in the learner vehicle they have occupied.  The only glances they have cast at each other during this uncomfortable interval have been sidelong, as they both regard the precipice of the chasm that has loomed up between them.
Siddiqui mimes the re-attachment of his shoulder harness and the re-engagement of the car’s ignition, while Gillespie’s Julie sits motionless.
“Seatbelt,” Ranit reminds her.
The driving instructor’s warning might have served for the audience as well.  Over the course of their interaction we have had ample opportunity to watch Julie’s sense of outrage build at the casual cultural sexist arrogance of this family man, who thinks nothing of speculating on the menstrual status and practice of this suburban London university student:
“I bet you use a tampon during the day, and a towel at night.”
She has retaliated by suggesting an appropriate intimate location in which he might bury the former. 
He has also revealed the humiliating frustration inherent in his servile role as driving tutor, despite his advanced degrees in Economics, English and European Literature, placing his own car at their service in the bargain. Julie’s major in History will not save either of them from that which they find themselves destined to repeat.
Siddiqui imbues Ranit with a convincing sense of moral myopia inside a physical presence that suggests a full communion with his character’s body.  When he lays his arm along the seat behind his charge’s back he creates a vague sense of casual creepiness only heightened by his character’s apparent lack of awareness of, or concern with, boundaries.
Gillespie’s Julie seems much less at ease.  She hunches forward at the wheel; her voice strains, rises and falls in pitch as much as her arms do in the mime sequences in which she turns an imaginary steering wheel.  I wonder how these two smell to one another.
Director Brian Hashimoto seems to have striven to heighten the intimacy of the situation by enclosing this pair behind 4 black theater set cubes stacked to create a kind of dashboard square.  Unfortunately, this cuts off the audience’s view of his player’s bodies below the ribs, forcing us to work with only half the physical information. 
The lack of a practical steering wheel created a distracting sense of struggle in the mime.  And although the sound cues for door openings and closings came off perfectly, the attention afforded their frequent repetition made them appear precious. The director, however, has a good eye for movement and the right ear for silence.
Gillespie’s Driving, in its first incarnation, stands as a lesson in theatrical shorthand with hints of full-fledged brilliance.  She has sketched the essence of characters whose spirit seems willing to emerge, but whose flesh will require work to shake us as profoundly as they do in that silent minute. 

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