April 19, 2019

Tone Deaf—News, the Media and Joyce Carol Oates’ Play



Tone Deaf—News, the Media and Joyce Carol Oates’ Play

Real life married couple Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld star in Tone Clusters at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum through October 12.

Tone Clusters, a one-act play by award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates is a disturbing, jolting view into the lives of an older couple whose family is torn apart. Taken straight out of the news, this play is unfortunately as topical now as when it was first produced in 1990. Comparisons and parallels to the Trayvon Martin case come to mind as how criminal cases are “tried” in the media, a media that is often tone deaf in that it does not listen, only delivers, shapes, and records. The play is, in a loose way, what happens when FOX News or TMZ camps out on the front doorstep? Sensationalistic television. Paparazzi. 24/7 reality shows.

In Tone Clusters, Frank and Emily Gulick (played by real life husband and wife acting team Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James) are an American couple whose grown son Carl is accused of the rape, mutilation and murder of a 14 year old neighbor girl, Edith Kominsky (her body found in the Gulick’s basement, at 23/68 Cedar Street, Lakepoint, New Jersey). The Gulicks believe in their son’s innocence. Yet, they are engaged by the media for a session of answering never-ending, one-sided questions. The stage setting is similar to a talk show, with the parents seated in chairs side by side, with a table between them, in front of a screen backdrop with projected images. Large screen televisions are strewn about the outdoor theater and two video cameras on tripods, tape Mr. and Mrs. Gulick separately. The audience watches the actors, the television displays, and the screen backdrop, where images of Carl as a boy, news and graphic crime scenes are displayed. The dramatic clash between a condescending, dominant media “media voice” (played superciliously by Jeff Wiensen) and two parents struggling to reclaim their privacy and private lives is electrifying. Strong performances are given by everyone in the ensemble, with Katherine James bringing forth the epitome of a caring mother who is deeply in denial over the appalling situation. Her gestures are spot-on, and there is no question who this woman is. Katherine James is absolutely believable as the out-of-touch with reality mother who loves her son. In an interview with Sonali Kolhatkar at Uprising about Tone Clusters, actor Alan Blumenfeld states the parents are “in deep denial about the possible horror that these parents possibly may have raised.”

His character, Frank Gulick shouts at the media voice in a key scene, “If your own flesh and blood looks you in the eye, you believe.” The wife, Emily, agrees, “I looked into my son's eyes and I saw truth shining.” To which the Media Voice (interviewer) wryly responds, "We have here the heartbeat of parental love and faith.”

Despite the fact that Carl’s room is filled with paramilitary gear and an extensive collection of pornographic magazines defaced sadistically. Despite what seems like over-whelming evidence to the contrary, these parents steadfastly believe in their son, or in the “idea” of their son’s innocence. Tone Clusters is “choppy, with snapshots of moments, disembodied thoughts of what parents are going through” says Jeff Wiesen, who plays the role of the Media Voice, as an unseen collective presence, a faceless voice projected off stage. Director Mike Peebler explains this play is “about the ‘spectacularization’ of tragedy in our culture, it’s about the way we take horrible events and turn them into a product to be consumed, passing instantaneous judgment and dehumanizing those involved in the process.”


Tone Deaf—News, the Media and Joyce Carol Oates’ Play

Jonathan Blandino transforms himself in The Secret Mirror at the Theatricum Botanicum.

In addition to Tone Clusters, there is also a series of monologues before the play, one which deals with a man in front of a mirror and another about a young girl contemplating an orange: I Stand Before you Naked, Oranges, and The Secret Mirror. There is much bubbling beneath the surface of these powerful monologues, but they must be seen to feel the full force of their impact. Monologue performers are Jonathan Blandino, Cynthia Kania and Sarah Lyddan. All compelling. Each perfectly delivered, executed and equally disturbing. Of particular note is the mind-altering performance of Jonathan Blandino as he transforms himself on stage.

During a panel after the play, the playwright Joyce Carol Oates explained that the title, Tone Clusters, was inspired by 20th century pianists who use tonal clusters without piano pedals and that after the music is played, “there is no memory of the chord.”

Note: In music, a tone cluster is a chord comprised of at least three adjacent tones in a scale. For example C, C# and D , struck together simultaneously they produce a tone cluster, which can sound dissonant or melodious, jammed together, too close, the notes can seem as if they do not belong together, yet they are in unison. Tone clusters are often jarring and awkward to endure. Old time radio drama employs tone clusters for dream sequences or to indicate suspense. For this reason, tone clusters are sometimes called music to murder somebody to.

Ms. Oates is one of America’s most beloved contemporary writers, her novels have been nominated for three Pulitzer Prizes, with work ranging from Gothic to suspense to fantasy, children’s literature, as well as poetry, novels and short stories. Her awards include a Guggenheim fellowship, a PEN award, a Rosenthal, an O’Henry Prize for Continued Achievement in the Short Story, and a National Book Award for her novel, “Them.” She is currently the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Princeton.

Tone Clusters at The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N Topanga Canyon Blvd. 90290 (midway between PCH and the Ventura Freeway) (310) 455-3723 wwwtheatricum.com. General Admission $25; Seniors, students, military veterans, and Actors Equity members: $15. Special caution. These plays deal with adult themes, language and graphic images. At 8 p.m. on Thursdays Sept. 12, 19 and 26 and Friday, Oct. 4 and Saturday Oct. 12. Note: Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld will host post-show discussions after every performance.