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Not In Our Theater: Rehearsing Creepy Violence in By The Bog of Cats

By the Bog of CatsNobody expects Greek tragedy to be an exercise in polite restraint, but audiences at By the Bog of Cats, Marina Carr's updating of Medea, were still unprepared to witness acts of cold-blooded violence known to most American citizens only through hearing them described in accounts of war atrocities.

The play explores the conflicts arising from proud Hester Swane's refusal to surrender her young child to its common-law father, promised in marriage to the daughter of wealthy landowner Xavier Cassidy. The latter attempts to bully Hester into compliance by cornering her, in a lonely place on a dark night, and threatening her with a firearm. When she fights back, he pins her to the ground, pulls up her skirt and aims the gun between her legs.

Artistic Home actors Kristin Collins and Frank Nall, as well as director John Mossman, have worked together for decades, but even so, rehearsing a scene of this intensity has the capability to unnerve even the most seasoned professionals. (Richard Gilbert, of R & D Violence Designers, admits to once experiencing temporary cold feet when testing the side-venting pistol used in the villain's suicide in Lifeline's Count of Monte Cristo.) The widespread problem of replicating the increasingly graphic violence demanded by playwrights is addressed in guidelines recently drawn up by the Not In Our House project.

"Physically unsafe work has no place in the theater," declares Mossman, adding, "That's what the circus and professional sports are for." Collins was first to suggest that Xavier's intimidation border on sexual assault, citing previous comments by other characters in the play regarding the clan patriarch's reputation for sadistic perversion, and Hester herself speaking of his "groping me with his gun." Nall could still have retreated from portraying the perpetrator of such brutal aggression, but after extensive discussion, conceded that the monstrousness of the attack was necessary in order to justify Hester's subsequent revenge.

Then came the plotting of the sequence: the script specifies Xavier choking Hester, then striking her and "putting the gun down her dress." Since Nall is considerably larger than Collins, it was decided that once rendered supine, she would likely stay that way. The earliest rehearsals were conducted with both actors fully clothed, but unarmed. Proceeding in slow motion, Nall traced a path starting at Collins' knee, traveling up the inside of her leg and over her hip to stop inches below her navel-the womb being the "place of life" Xavier so resents—while continuing to hold her down with a hand at the center of her chest.

"While Hester is on the ground," Collins explains, "she asks Xavier if he plans to shoot her, and after giving her a look as though considering his next action, he lowers the gun to her thigh and then back up, to just above the pubic bone. If the struggle preceding this moment hasn't hiked up the dress, he uses the gun barrel to raise it. We run through it step-by-step at every performance's pre-show fight call."

All three players acknowledge the professionalism involved in carrying off this delicate stage business. "I think Frank finds the scene harder to execute than I do." says Collins. Nall concurs, "Kristin and I are good friends and were able to approach the scene from a level of trust that two strangers might not have achieved."

"The goal was to create the most unsettling tone possible without resorting to any actual sexual contact." Mossman declares, "One of the benefits of an ensemble company is the rapport that enables actors to express any discomfort they may feel in the process, so that there is never any real sense of violation." He shrugs, "When we did Macbeth, Frank drowned me in a tub nightly. I trust him implicitly."

By the Bog of Cats runs at the Artistic Home through April 15.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer

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