Magic Time: ‘The Third Breast’ by John Stoltenberg

The Third Breast is a gritty play, produced by a gutsy company. The three actors are arresting; the music and visuals, appealing. But for some interesting reasons, the challenging script by Polish writer Ireneusz Iredyński (1939–1985) can be an effort for a U.S. audience to comprehend.

The cast of ‘The Third Breast’: Sissel Bakken, Matthew Ingraham, and Christopher Henley. Photo by Magda Pinkowska.
The cast of ‘The Third Breast’: Sissel Bakken, Matthew Ingraham, and Christopher Henley. Photo by Magda Pinkowska.

On the surface the story is a naturalistic drama of sex, power, and intrigue inside a hippie-dippie commune in the woods. Think Jonestown but swathed in saffron and headed by a woman named Eva. She is, as we are told by her older and former paramour, Thomas (the estimable Christopher Henley), a charismatic and revered leader, but she has grown a third breast, a defect that shames her and must remain unknown to the cult. Indeed, the eponymous protuberance so perturbs her that Thomas persuades a hot-blooded pup, George (the intense and watchable Matthew Ingraham), to perk up her body image by making love to her. He does so, with gusto, to Eva’s evident pleasure—but instead of, say, telling the hottie she would like to hook up with him again sometime, Eva (the Liv Ullman–esque Sissel Bakken) tells George he must, for the good of the commune, murder the only two other cult members who know of her flaw.

Hmmm, methinks maybe this show isn’t so naturalistic after all.

And it’s not. There’s really a huge, overhanging political allegory going on. I couldn’t follow it, actually, but it seemed to be a scathing screed against the corruption intrinsic to communism. Or something like that; I was never sure. All I could tell was that whatever the characters were proponents of, the author himself was likely not. From what I could surmise, Iredyński deemed them all deranged if not malignant, even as the audience was supposed to warm to them and identify with them and care about what happens to them with fear and pity as in tragedy.

So I could have used a Cliff’s Notes to know what the heck was going on.

Allegory in theater is a difficult trick to pull off well. There’s gotta be a smart surface, which I call the WYSIWYG level, and this has to invite us to suspend disbelief and enter a world that’s internally credible and engaging. Then there’s gotta be a smart meta level, where Big Issues levitate in plain sight but are typically seen only by those who have eyes to see. The wildly popular musical Wicked is a contemporary classic of the allegory form. At the WYSIWYG level, it’s the enchanting back story to The Wizard of Oz. At the meta level, it’s a trenchant critique of racism and discrimination. You don’t have to get the meta level to enjoy the WYSIWYG level; the meta level doesn’t have to work for everyone; you don’t even have to know it’s there. But the WYSIWYG level is a deal breaker; you have to be drawn into it and be able to follow it on its own terms. The meta level can’t make sense of character transitions and story arcs that don’t make sense on the WYSIWYG level; the meta level can’t connect dots that don’t cohere on stage; the meta level can’t function as on-the-fly script doctor. And that’s where The Third Breast miscalculates, at least for an audience that has the world-politics knowledge base of a gnat.

Matthew Ingraham and Christopher Henley. Photo by Magda Pinkowska.
Matthew Ingraham and Christopher Henley. Photo by Magda Pinkowska.

That would be me.

The Ambassador Theatre founder and Artistic Director Hanna Bondarewska has set the company’s sights on an inspiring mission: “to build international cultural awareness” by producing works from abroad heretofore unknown on these shores. It’s like drama as diplomacy—which in terms of cultivating global understanding sure trumps Disney’s “It’s a Small World After All.”

So this company’s heart is in the right place. And I want it to succeed. This time out, it didn’t. But I’ll be back to check in on it next time.

The Third Breast plays through this Sunday, August 4, 2013, at Ambassador Theater at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint – 916 G Street, NW in Washington, D.C. Purchase tickets online.

Yvonne French’s review of The Third Breast on DCMetroTheaterArts.



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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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