Allegory, Imagination, and Theater

by Ben Yalom

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation

Post image for Allegory, Imagination, and Theater

Faultlines Susannah (Joan Howard), Chatsworth (Gustavo Alonso) and Fernando (Paul Collins)  begin arguing.

SUSANNA
Damn 1971. 6am Fernando quakes. Sewers bubble, the dam almost breaks, I got happy and I couldn’t help it. There I was, first aftershock….I shook for so many years afterwards.

CHATSWORTH
Let it go.

SUSANNA
And these beautiful streets. I made cracks and divides and lines on this grid. Golden State Freeway northbound and southbound. Overpasses collapsed. Those poor chunks of street…I did that and you know no amount of “I’m sorrys” can heal concrete.

– Fault lines Susanna and Chatsworth remember the last time Susanna quaked in Angela Santillo’s Faulted.

FoolsFURY’s current production, the world premiere of Angela Santillo’s Faulted, features four allegorical characters, the embodiment of four California fault lines. Allegory in theater is most familiar to us through the morality plays of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. In these works a protagonist representing the members of a certain community, or even humanity as a whole, encounters characters that personify abstract attributes. In one of the best known of these plays, Everyman, the eponymous hero makes a pilgrimage, meeting along the way Death, God, Knowledge, and Good Deeds, among others. Essentially the function of such characters and the plays they inhabit is to provide clear moral guidance for the audience. Everyman underscores the necessity of performing good works and the sacraments in order to enter the gates of heaven, thus reinforcing the dominant Roman Catholic worldview. Which makes perfect sense for a classical framework in which there is an understood Greater Good. But what use do we have for such allegorical characters in our post-modern world, in which no such Good is universally agreed upon? Rather than promote a particular ideological position, contemporary use of allegorical characters can help audiences to rethinking their assumptions, a goal more appropriate to our era in which no Single Narrative is valued.

Fools Fury 3

Faultline Andreas (Michael Uy Kelly) pulls energy from Aurora (Debórah Eliezer), the earth empath.

I think I was drawn to Faulted for the same reasons I have chosen many other plays for foolsFURY which have mythic, larger than life characters, whether they are explicit (as these are), or slightly less so (say, Delfina Treadwell, the media-created, oracular daytime talk show host in Don DeLillo’s Valparaiso). In a sense it is the inverse of the goal of morality plays that inspires me: rather than point to a specific way of thinking about the world, these characters help foster freedom of thought. In essence, the personifying of abstract idea pushes us out of our day-to-day world. We are immediately freed to suspend our disbelief in deep ways. This is similar to the most interesting science fiction writing, where new worlds with different rules can be used to help us reconsider aspects of our own, such as Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash where everything has been privatized and people live in “franchulates,” which are part sovereign state, part fast food franchise, or China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, in which it is just the state of affairs that many intelligent life forms – ranging from human to insect to cactus to bio-engineered combinations – make up the society together. With these premises it is easy to dispense with some of our assumptions and look at issues like American consumer culture, or the challenges of a pluralistic society, with somewhat fresh eyes.

This doesn’t require that we work in science fiction, or use allegorical characters. These are but two of many theatrical devices we can use to swiftly subvert audiences’ (and artists’) assumptions by presenting worlds with different base premises. Some other devices we’ve deployed include characters whose radical physicality expresses their inner turmoil, worlds in which the living speak to the dead, or societies in which all conversation is in verse. These conceits, among so many other possible devices, help theater be a brilliant vehicle for wonder.

Fools Fury 2

Faultlines Chatsworth (Gustavo Alonso) and Fernando (Paul Collins)  wolfing down In-N-Out burgers to make themselves quake.

In Faulted, an odd beautiful love letter to California, the fault lines stuff themselves with In-n-Out burgers to invoke tectonic shifts. “I want to quake,” says (San) Fernando, stuffing his face with his 197th Double Double, while (Santa) Susanna has fallen in love with the LA freeway system, and is desperate not to break it apart again. This opens up space in my mind to think about the drivethrough/freeway culture of Southern California, contemporary patterns of consumption, the relationship between people and the environment, etc. I recently spent three years living in LA, and never once considered its freeway system as beautiful. But looking at it from the perspective of Santillo’s enamored fault line, (itself a type of transportation corridor through California), jarred me out of my commuter perspective, grumpy, tired of the car, stuck. Shift the lens and that endless, barely moving, river of taillights becomes a glowing circulatory system, veins and arteries of metal, asphalt and rubber, pumping life through the dry desert.

FoolsFURY’s mission statement has several lofty goals, one of which is to create “ground-breaking visceral performances that inspire audiences and artists to reconsider and reconnect with the world around them.” I find characters like Santillo’s fault lines bring us into a space where this imaginative work is possible, where the rules are changed, and the mind can free up. Doing this well enough to affect thinking beyond the walls of the theater, beyond the performance experience – that is the hard and important work.

Faulted by Angela Santillo, directed by Evren Odcikin, runs November 17th – December 7th at The Thick House in San Francisco. More information available at www.foolsfury.org.


Ben Yalom is the founder and co-artistic director of foolsFURY, a San Francisco-based theater ensemble. He has directed many foolsFURY productions including the world premieres of Sheila Callaghan’s PORT OUT, STARBOARD HOME, and Doug Dorst’s MONSTER IN THE DARK (both created collaboratively with the foolsFURY ensemble), the US premiere of Fabrice Melquiot’s THE DEVIL ON ALL SIDES (which he also translated), and others. Ben has also worked with A.C.T., Traveling Jewish Theatre, the Playwrights Foundation, the Magic Theatre, Playground, the Aurora Theatre, and Encore Theatre (San Francisco); Inverse Theater and The Cell (New York); Playwrights’ Arena and EST LA (Los Angeles); and Théâtre Ange Magnétique (Paris).

Ben has taught at UC Riverside, California College of the Arts, Stanford University, the Lee Strasberg Institute (NYU/Tisch), the La Mama Umbria Director’s Symposium, the National Theater Institute, Vassar College, the Berkeley Rep School of Theater, and elsewhere. He is currently developing a new theater program at the United Nations International School in New York.

Ben holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his fiction, essays and translations of plays have appeared in magazines nationwide. He proudly serves on the board of the Network of Ensemble Theaters.