You never know what you’re going to get nowadays when you accept an invitation to the theater. During this year’s New Orleans Giant Puppet Fest, I heard a story about a puppeteer/roadkill collector who built a show around a rank, rancid plastic bag he gleefully discovered the day before, the contents of which were, in his professional opinion, a three-day-old rotting animal. Unleashing the stench on the theater, he took marionettes made of raw chicken thighs and danced them above the unidentified rotting creature as it was set ablaze, burning until it was reduced to a pile of, as my friend put it, “bone, goo, and hair.”
Stories such as these have turned me into a reluctant theatergoer, but standing in line for The Cuck: A modern adaptation of Sophocles’ Electra, I indulged myself in a moment of optimism. Classical adaptations require deep thought and hard work to translate ancient themes to contemporary audiences, and I was curious to see how they would build that bridge. Besides, when they told me at the front of the line that tickets were $20, I reassured myself that amidst the current economic crisis, a play purporting to deal with themes of class and privilege wouldn’t take such a big chunk of my weekly grocery budget just to make me suffer.
Alas, the Russian roulette revolver that is DIY theater had a bullet with my name on it that night. The best way I can describe what I saw is if an Instagram algorithm took an intro to theater class during freshman year of liberal arts college and submitted The Cuck as its end of semester project. The absence of a human hand in the play’s creation would actually explain a lot: robotic dialogue that doggedly refused to drive the story forward, total lack of empathy in any of the characters, and the omnipresence of conspicuously hip slang.
The story, such as it was, concerned the Bronze Age telenovela that is the Trojan War. But betrayal, human sacrifice, the reunion of long-lost family members, matricide—all the juiciest melodrama of the Electra tragedy didn’t much interest the characters of this play. Instead, they almost single-mindedly attended to what appeared to be playwright Sam Mayer’s primary focus: the onstage distribution and consumption of vodka shots, which each character undertook with quasi-religious zeal. Theoretically this was all justified by a music festival taking place somewhere offstage, one of a handful of devices designed to serve The Cuck’s four endlessly recycled jokes1These four jokes were: 1. The word “cuck.” 2. The rich love having servants. 3. People who go to music festivals are basic. 4. Actors are drinking vodka on stage., but after watching the fifth round of vodka shots dribble from the orifices of an ice luge, you had to wonder if they were angling for a sponsorship.
Reactionary, stick-in-the-mud Philistine that I am, I found myself wondering why anyone would take the trouble to perform a modern retelling of a classical Greek tragedy that they had absolutely no interest in. In my mind, complete indifference to all that thematically rich material was the only real tragedy performed that night. To be sure, our society has drifted a long way from the preoccupations and values of the ancient Greeks, a distance which facilitated The Cuck’s near constant mockery of the original storyline. But if the Intramural Theater company had martialed their considerable creative resources to explore the play’s depths instead of stubbornly remaining in the shallows, there is much they could have revealed about a modern world ravaged by a thousands-year-old death cycle initiated by Bronze Age conflicts like the Trojan War. Instead of directing their competent, energetic actors to convince the audience to find humor in poorly written, derivative gags thrown into one of the least funny plotlines of all time, they could have just leaned into the tragedy, shown some vulnerability and concern for a suffering world, and hooked their audience up with a little catharsis.
While I acknowledge that this performance is just the latest perpetrator of a postmodern aversion to giving a shit that has long plagued theaters from New Orleans to Brooklyn, the pervasiveness of this attitude didn’t make me feel any less robbed of my time and money walking away from the theater that night. However, when I say that it’s a heinous act of disrespect to a working class audience to charge2Allegedly there is some kind of “No one turned away for lack of funds (NOTAFLOF)” policy, but no mention of this was made when it came time to take our money. And while the stricken look on my face and tremor in my hands as I handed over my hard-earned cash should have been a clear indicator of a lack of funds, the person at the ticket booth was too busy avoiding eye contact to notice. a summer day’s wages at Palace Café to watch people throw bored tantrums onstage for two hours, I don’t mean to single the Intramural Theater collective out. The same goes for any roadkill performance artist out there who considers a demonstration of novelty and ironic apathy to be substitutes for craft—and is audacious enough to ask us to pay for the privilege. It’s the end of days, y’all. Who the hell has time for this shit?