New York

Ridge Theater

Alice Tully Hall

Slides, flickering films, supertitles, and John Moran’s alternately soothing and tension-provoking music provided a kaleidoscopic visual and aural background for Ridge Theater’s new operatic drama The Manson Family at the “Serious Fun!” festival. Under the direction of Bob McGrath, the production managed to deal with the disturbing deeds of Charles Manson and his “family” on a substantive level. By interlacing details of the story with aspects of the once-popular television series Hawaii Five-O, Moran and McGrath not only addressed the way in which events are exploited by mainstream media, but explored the seductive appeal such sensationalism exerts. By duplicating these exploitative devices, the performance ultimately invited the viewer to consider the appeal of Charles Manson himself.

Much of Manson’s allure depended upon his facility with language, a fact that is conveyed throughout the piece by an exquisitely executed bombardment of speech. The libretto is punctuated by familiar phrases from the Manson lexicon, such as “Helter Skelter,” or “Death to Pigs,” and by supertitles composed of aphoristic fragments intended to trigger the workings of the unconscious. These devices shed light on Manson’s manipulations, as do the more specific examinations of his rhetorical tactics such as posturing and repetition. For example, the Manson character, played by Daniel Harnett, delivers excited monologues to members of “the family.” Pontificating from atop a rock—a position literally above them—he could effectively implore the group to surrender themselves to him: “Give your fear to me . . . all you gotta do is leave your fear at the door.” The speech, uttered over and over, suggests the calming, albeit brainwashing, effect of repetitive language.

Examining Manson’s seductive rhetoric is only half of Ridge Theater’s purpose. Part of the intention of matching up the Manson story with Hawaii Five-O is to compare deviant and institutionalized rhetorical strategies. Soon after Manson’s surrender speech, character Steve Pentheus, the chief detective in the Manson case (played by M. K. Harris in an uncannily close imitation of Hawaii Five-O’s Steve McGarrett) tells one of the Manson girls that all she has to do is leave her fear at the door in order to enter society. Though speaking from opposite sides of the law, Pentheus / McGarrett and Manson are shown similarly utilizing language to manipulate and control.

Manson exploited the flexibility of language, as well as its fixity of meaning, depending on his needs at a given moment. The former can be seen in his choice of changeable identities—Jesus Christ, the Devil, God, Charles Milles Manson, and Charles Willis Manson. The latter is exemplified in those moments when he embraced the language of Steve Pentheus’ domain, the language of the law. In the courtroom scene near the end of the performance, Manson rises to say, “I’m going to defend myself one way or another; I’d like to do it with words.” Of course, the fact that this request is preceded by his claim, “I am the Devil,” reveals a more confused agenda.

The foregoing features make Manson a tricky figure to represent. To look at Manson, Hitler, or Mussolini for that matter, as isolated figures is to risk the delusion that such individuals could never live again. On the other hand, to see them as periodically reborn embodiments of evil, who can easily be managed by strong enough systems of law and order is to risk a blinding reliance on the very systems such individuals tamper with in order to enhance their own power. In between lies the type of substantive questioning required—the type with which Ridge theater so brilliantly challenged their audience.

Kathy O’Dell