Over Meliora Weekend, at Todd Union we were treated to a riveting performance of When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? by students in UR’s International Theatre Program Union.
The play opens innocuously enough on an ordinary afternoon as a wispy, tatooed short order cook working the night shift (Stephen played convincingly by Ian Von Fange) fidgets at his diner chair waiting for his replacement Angel, late by six minutes (played by Marta Kontny who captures the resilience of a young woman whose yearnings for romance collide with the reality of a small southwestern town).
Soon enough, however, the play reveals itself as a taut psycho-drama. Teddy — a small time drug dealer and Vietnam Vet who may suffer from PTSD — enters the diner in search of money to fix his van’s busted generator. A glib, seeming con man, (whose charisma, both fearful and magnetic, is embodied deftly by Theodore Rycroft), Teddy instead seems compelled to turn the stage into his personal passion play in which he is both actor and director.
As the action unfolds, the characters and audience are thrust into the extreme situation created by Teddy, drawn in trance-like, literally and metaphorically held hostage. Not seeing himself as a petty thief, Ted imagines and projects a persona as truth-teller: a master psychologist who can infer and expose the other character’s frailties, suppressed fears and desires. For all the mayhem he enacts, in Teddy’s mind he is a liberator, a liberator from illusions and their constraints.
At the end, when our suspended disbelief is unsuspended, much of the characters’ behaviors seem inexplicable. As Teddy unlocks their psychic mechanisms, characters do and say things apparently irrational or untenable. At various points, they could end Teddy’s passion play by simple avoidance or coming to their senses and seeing Teddy for what he is: a con man with petty theft on his mind. But the play doesn’t not allow such simple solutions. Instead, asking the audience if they would act so differently.
Written in 1974 by Mark Medoff, Red Ryder achieves some of its effect by tapping into cultural phenomena of its historical moment. Teddy as the alienated soldier back from ‘Nam — made iconic a few years later by Jon Voight in Coming Home — proliferated in popular culture. In this case, Teddy’s compulsion to use the diner as a place to exercise and exorcise his own demons fits our image of PTSD.
And, Medoff may be exploring for dramatic uses the so-called Stockholm Syndrome first coined in 1973. In 1974, Patti Hearst would use the Syndrome as a defense during her kidnapping trial. Stockholm Syndrome or capture-bonding has been defined as a psychological phenomena in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with the captors. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims.
The Free Medical Dictionary offers several components:
Coping— In psychology, a term that refers to a person’s patterns of response to stress. Some patterns of coping may lower a person’s risk of developing Stockholm syndrome in a hostage situation.
Flashback— The re-emergence of a traumatic memory as a vivid recollection of sounds, images, and sensations associated with the trauma. The person having the flashback typically feels as if they are reliving the event. Flashbacks were first described by doctors treating combat veterans of World War I (1914–1918).Identification with an aggressor— In psychology, an unconscious process in which a person adopts the perspective or behavior patterns of a captor or abuser. Some researchers consider it a partial explanation of Stockholm syndrome.Regression— In psychology, a return to earlier, usually childish or infantile, patterns of thought or behavior.
When I did a quick post-play psychoanalytical reading, several moments can be traced back to the dictionary’s terms, especially in scenes of flashback memories or points where characters abandon resistance in childlike submission.
At the same time, to the degree Medoff may be invoking PTSD or Stockholm Syndrome, he is never reductive. Like any effective drama, Medoff takes familiar tropes or shards from his culture, reshaping them into a theatrical vision transcending one-to-one relationships.
Furthermore, Medoff is creating more than a set piece psychodrama. The play equally functions as social commentary or allegory. As described in the playbill, Medoff takes head on the turbulent decade on the 70’s, a “distressing and singular time for a large number of people,” one fueling distrust and disillusionment. The play dramatizes 70’s anxiety though its title and Stephen’s nickname Red Ryder. The iconic comic book figure becomes the staging ground for Medoff’s exploration of nostalgia and its discontents.
In presenting Medoff’s allegory, this current production is underscored by a bold interpretative decision. As each cast member filters into the rural New Mexico diner, we are seemingly confronted with the American melting pot writ large. The waitress Angel has a Polish accent; the diner owner is Asian; the motel owner Lyle is Sikh, and one visiting woman patron is African-American.
Later, I would learn from Ian in the original play none of the characters are ethnically or racially marked, all presumed to be white. But partially due to casting circumstances and partly a conscious decision, the cast became multicultural. (The motel owner Lyle was given the Sikh last name of Singh.)
Ian’s revelation explained why I was surprised to hear no references in the play to African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Polish-Americans or Sikh-Americans. It was if the play is erasing racial and ethnic differences. But the casting decision works on two levels. First, the multicultural cast — modernized so to speak — makes the clash of social positions more vivid and thought provoking. And, simultaneously, doing so universalizes the characters. As the psycho-drama intensifies, we don’t see ethnic and racial categories but a human — if extreme — condition.
My trip to the Todd Union Theater also become a brief excursion into the University of Rochester theater community offstage.
The UR Theater Program has entertained Rochestarians for decades. My first play was in 1982, That Championship Season. The well done performance invoked still fresh memories from when I froze at the plate during the 1976 Brighton Little League All Star game.
Ten years later, I watched Heinrich von Kleist’s The Prince of Homburg (1821). I remember lots of period costumes and the clinking of armor. While the fault was mine, I found von Kleist’s Prince a little too ponderously Germanic for my taste. But I appreciated that few other companies would perform a 19th century spectacle. And UR Professor emeritus Roger Gans, a frequent performer at the Todd Union, was excellent in his role.
In 1996, I enjoyed Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck (1837) — yet another 19th century Sturm and Drang period piece. After having read the work in college, the performance brought the written text to life.
My next visit overdue by twenty years, upon arrival Sunday — early to make sure I could use the Meliora Weekend Media pass kindly offered by UR Spokesperson Sara Miller — I met Ardelia Krupin, a Junior and Theater Arts major.
A recent assistant director for Under Milkwood who be directing the upcoming Circle Mirror Transformation, Ardelia’s passion for theater shone. There to support her friends, Ardelia described the theater community as close knit, comprising “a couple of handfuls of hard cores.” While she doesn’t live in the nearby Drama Center, Ardelia said the Center is an open and rich resource for the entire UR community.
I asked Ardelia what she looks for in any performance. At first, Ardelia puts aside her director’s hat and monitors audience response. Afterwards, Ardelia mentioned distinctly hearing shocked gasps and seeing people covering their mouths.
Also at Todd Union was Dean Jon Burdick and student actor Prosper Feya, a performer in Mother Courage. Propser is an Engineering major not planning to make theater his career. Dean Burdick said Prosper is the kind of student for whom the Theater Program can be an enriching experience even if not leading to a vocation.
Prosper relished his role in Mother Courage, fascinated by Brecht’s Verfremdung’s effect. Prosper mentioned recently re-watching the film Imitation Game in which one character says of another; “he knows more German than Berthold Brecht. Had not Propser been in Mother Courage he might have missed the curious reference (how can you know more German than Brecht?).
In the lobby as the players were leaving after their powerful performance, I talked with Ian Von Fange and Teddy Rycroft. Teddy is a Lingustics major with an equal passion for drama and music. Performing as the same named Teddy, Ryder is Teddy’s first performance as comprehensive character.
As both Teddys love playing with language, Teddy the linguist sees some of himself in his character. When comparing the musician to the actor, Teddy thinks both must first master techniques like memorizing lines and consciously planning the intent for each scene or set. But after the preparation, it’s all about presence and staying in the moment.
Ian is an English major concentrating in Creative Writing. For Ian, writing and performing are similar; both are founded on invention and artifice. (At the end, see poems from Professor James Longenbach’s Creative Writing Seminar last Spring, Ian and Teddy each kindly offered.)
On Monday, I talked with Ian — also a Theater Program intern — at greater length. A Senior from Kansas City, Ian sees writing and, to a lesser degree, acting as his life callings. Next stop after graduation: Manhattan.
Our conversation was wide ranging and I was much impressed by Ian’s insights into theater and his knowledge of social contexts. He was equally at home discussing the dramatic oeuvre of the 70s — isolating and capturing distilled life moments — as with possible contemporary political readings of Red Ryder.
Ian had heard of the Stockholm Syndrome. Ian thought some of its elements arguably resonate in the play, but — as I do — more tangentially than directly. The Syndrome then became a stepping stone for a close analysis of the psychological games played by Medoff and Teddy. With each turn, Ian thoughtfully articulated the complexities and paradoxes inherent in Red Ryder.
Ian’s musing reinforced my own feeling after the play was over — the same confusedness expressed by the characters as they exit one by one leaving only Angel and Stephen’s uneaten doughnut — what exactly had I just witnessed?
That’s a feeling any good play should evoke. Come experience it yourself. The last show is Saturday.
Below are Ian’s “Facts about Peackock” and Teddy’s “El Paso” both from UR Professor James Longenbach’s Creative Writing Seminar last Spring. “Peacock” was awarded an Academy of American Poets Prize by the University. “El Paso” is a fitting theme for a play set in the southwest.
ON MELIORA WEEKEND AND THE UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER
ON LOCAL THEATER