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Brían F. O’Byrne, Swoosie Kurtz (foreground), Sam Kitchin in Bryony Lavery's "Frozen"

Dead Girl's Dance
By Caridad Svich

By Bryony Lavery
Circle in the Square
50th St., W of Broadway
Box office: (212) 239-6200


Frozen is a three-handed portrait of a pedophile/murderer (played by Brian F. O'Bryne), a criminal psychologist (played by Laila Robins), and the mother who has lost her child at the hands of the pedophile (played by Swoosie Kurtz). It is a clear-eyed, restrained, and intelligent play about how stricken individuals contain their grief--and moreover contain their emotions generally for fear of losing themselves to rage, vengeance and pain. Twisting the knife, as it were, with delicacy and nuance, Lavery builds her play on a contrapuntal structure of alternating monologues by each of the characters, bracketed by tense duets between the murderer and psychologist, and the psychologist and the grieving mother. The play culminates in a strange, eerie meeting between the murderer and his victim's mother. Throughout all the interlocking solos and duets is felt the presence of the victim herself: a ten-year-old girl named Rhona who has disappeared on her way to her grandmother's house (not unlike Little Red Riding Hood), never to return. Rhona is the play's driving force even though she is absent from the stage. Her death serves as the catalyst for the three characters' emotional awakenings. Throughout the course of the play the image which continues to haunt even the most mundane of conversations is that of this innocent girl who has been violated and killed by a seemingly ordinary man.

Much has been made of the subject of pedophilia and its representation on stage, film and television in the last several years. Todd Solondz's Happiness and Clint Eastwood's Mystic River are just two examples of eminent films centered on pedophiles as anchor points for their narratives. Neil LaBute's Your Friends and Neighbors used the pedophiliac impulse of one of its lead characters as a turning point in its story of suburban loneliness and misanthropy. Week after week on television, docudramas and fictional shows in the police, law and crime genres ("Law and Order," "CSI," etc.) feature murder and abuse of young children or adolescents at the hands of pedophiles. The sensationalistic focus on aberrant behavior in these mainstream dramas has an oddly prurient quality, despite its moralistic overtones. TV coverage of the unresolved Jon Benet Ramsey murder, for example, was notable not for the details of the child beauty queen abducted and killed in the night, but rather for the entertainment context, the near giddiness with which reporters both reviled and leered at the child's beauty-queen photos and video clips. The "Lolita syndrome," branded so eloquently and devastatingly by Vladimir Nabokov in his classic novel, and reinterpreted by Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne in their film versions of the story, is unhealthily alive in the media's alternately salacious and puritanical coverage of young people (girls in particular) meeting their deaths in acts of abuse and violence.

Dead girls seem to animate our psyches in ways that dead and victimized boys do not. Iphigenia, Antigone, and Cassandra haunt our collective Western dramatic imaginations much more than, say, Medea's two boys. Deborah Warner's staging of Medea in the UK and US devoted impactful stage time to the murder of the children as Fiona Shaw, playing Medea, dragged their limp bodies across the stage, staining the walls of the palace with their fresh blood. But even the artful, and empathetic (to the victim) demonstration of violence and its effects in such a renowned story failed to swerve our attention or compassion away from the character of Medea. Susan Smith's murder of her sons, while horrific and scandalous, was almost overridden in media coverage by Smith herself. Her sons remained somehow nameless in the public mind. The 1993 death of the three-year-old English boy Jamie Bulger made the front pages of world newspapers and internet news services, I propose, not because of the killing itself but rather because Bulger was murdered by two ten-year-old boys mere yards away from a shopping center. The story there was about boys killing another boy. Yet even that story failed to hold the public imagination for long. It did not have the legs, for instance, of Princess Diana's untimely death, one of the most potent (and profitable) dead girl fantasies in recent memory.

We live in a world where what is recorded by a video camera (security, military, or otherwise) miles away, a continent away, co-exists with our immediate physical surroundings. In a culture of watching and being watched, how an audience views actions on film and stage is altered. As a culture, we have become increasingly conditioned to view images of violence and abuse with disaffection and pleasure. In Frozen, Lavery is savvy enough to save the descriptions of violence in her story for when they will register most profoundly with an audience. The writing is pointillistic in design. Details of Rhona's disappearance and of Ralph's obsessive psychotic behaviour emerge slowly, at times off-handedly. Lavery focuses our attention on what makes up a life instead of what destroys it.

Frozen has the boldness, and the modesty, to scale down its characters to a recognizably human level. Ralph is a natural monster, not a supernatural one: he is quiet, efficient and nondescript despite being disturbed and pathologically disassociated from his feelings. Agnetha, the criminal psychologist, is ambitious and forthright to a fault. In seeking scientific greater good, she has nearly barred herself from connection with other people. While her character is part of a long line of female figures in contemporary drama that are both burdened and chastised for their professional ambition, Lavery is deft in her portraiture. She doesn't take the all-too-easy and familiar road of making Agnetha an aggressive careerist detached from her feelings. Agnetha possesses wit, intelligence and passion, if perhaps a slight disregard for the effect her words or actions may have on others. Nancy is the immediate audience connective, and knowing this, Lavery draws her coolly at first. Nancy is isolated and disconnected. She is placid in her grief, and her chattery nature is a mask for the deep well of pain she is in from the loss of her child: her other self.

Lavery does not flinch from looking at the nature of aberrant behavior, but the strength of her work is in her ability to go beyond a case-study approach to aberrance. Lavery broaches the difficult subject of forgiveness, by her characters and her audience. As she put it in a recent interview with me:

I think Frozen presents both forgiveness and revenge as options...and I think it is fairly clear that the two roads have difficulties...but I think if we can encourage our audiences to rehearse the act of feels good in our fibre and bones and guts.

Brian F. O'Byrne and Laila Robins in Bryony Lavery's "Frozen"Witnessing Frozen we are asked to rid ourselves of the fantasy of the beautiful dead girl, of the sacrificial innocent of myths and stories, and contemplate with exactness and lack of morbidity the consequence of death in our lives. Lavery does not ask the audience to exonerate the murderer but she does ask that we come to a more comprehensive understanding of the workings of the human brain as we examine the events of the narrative. Using elements of the detective and horror genres (both of which deal with human mortality), Lavery sets up an atmosphere of quiet dread rather than suspense. Her craft is to steer the audience as much as possible away from pre-conditioned reflexes toward stories of interrogation and investigation seen many times before. The murderer, after all, is a solitary drifter, cut from the cloth of characters instantly recognizable from crime stories: the outsider, outlaw, the lonely, volatile male figure roaming the primal landscape at one with its random, casual violence. Under Doug Hughes's astute direction, however, O'Byrne is encouraged (as Ralph) to underplay the mad-marauder aspects of the role and concentrate instead on his ordinariness and fierceness. This works to the play's advantage. Indeed, the entire cast is called upon to deliver a particular kind of poetically exact performance. Lavery's play is not realistic in the Victorian sense of so much contemporary drama but rather poetic, with a heightened and remarkably precise speech and manner. The language does not ape everyday speech but exacts and essentializes it.

Ralph is remorseless. Agnetha is curiously drawn to him while she examines him. Nancy is enraged, desperate, determined and strangely calm once the gears of the story are set in motion (from Rhona's disappearance, to waiting for her return, to receiving word after twenty years that in fact Rhona will not return, since her remains are found in Ralph's shed). The play is by turns blunt and discreet with its portrayal of grief. When Nancy mimes holding Rhona's skull before her remains are finally laid properly to rest, Nancy remarks to the mortician, "It's beautiful." It is an unexpected moment in the play, for it asks us all, as collective witnesses to this story, to hold the dead girl in our hands, and consider what it means to do so.

Frozen refuses the gamesmanship and showmanship of contemporary life. It is full of silence and sorrow, even in its moments of amusement at the peculiarities and eccentricities of the human condition. It is a play of steady power that forces us to question the value we place on life itself. It posits, in effect, that if we rehearse our acts of mercy enough, mercifulness may not seem extraordinary but natural instead.


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