Tragedy in a Box: A Review of “The Gun Show (Can We Talk About This?)”

Photo courtesy of Quantum Theatre Andrew W. Smith, Quantum Theatre’s production of "The Gun Show," February 8–March 3, 2019. Andrew W. Smith, Quantum Theatre’s production of “The Gun Show,” February 8 – March 3, 2019.
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A refreshing pragmatism infuses Quantum Theatre’s production of “The Gun Show (Can We Talk About This?)” (2013) – a kind of low-​tech, iconoclastic exuberance that’s reminiscent of the early films of Godard. It’s a classic one-​man, story-​telling performance – with some audience interaction – that comes off somewhere between Spalding Gray’s “Monster in a Box” and a lively Al-​Anon meeting. And it has that rare quality of unimpeachable honesty that’s hard not to appreciate, like that of your old college friend who isn’t afraid to break the rules of decorum when something really needs to be said for your own good.

The derivativeness from “Monster in a Box” is pronounced, especially because the key prop of “The Gun Show” (here’s your trope alert) is a cardboard box. And the second is the desk that the character sits behind. In fact, both come directly from Gray’s performance monologue and 1992 film. But whereas for Gray the box held his 1900-​page novel, for playwright E.M. Lewis it holds the tokens and memories of her dead husband.

However, Lewis adds a swerve of her own: the speech of the play, which is her story – the story of a woman – in monologue form, is delivered by a male actor. Talk about casting against type. You just don’t see this direction of gender-​reversal in today’s theatre, and it may be one of the few contemporary Brechtian alienation devices that does the job it was meant to do: it makes you really listen.

Lewis speaks to the audience as herself, albeit through the voice of actor Andrew William Smith, which is kind of freaky, in that we are constantly hearing a man talk as a woman. He furthermore addresses himself, er, herself, as the playwright, who – and here is the big surprise – is actually sitting in the audience. So if you know someone who refers to him/​herself in the third person as a habit, then take them to this play so they can experience what everyone goes through listening to them. This eccentric trait may not be a bad thing, though, as “Psychology Today” notes that studies have found that this is an excellent way to “improve emotional regulation and self-​control… reducing ego-​centric bias.”

Not only does Lewis-​as-​actor-​Smith address herself during the play, but Smith often shines a big, black flashlight on her, like a de-​facto spotlight. As contrived as this sounds, it actually works. Why use a $1,000 klieg light when a $10 flashlight will do? Which is really a metaphor for the ethos of this entire production.

Smith is ideal for such a role as he’s the kind of actor who holds back as much as he can before committing to any sort of intent on stage. And “The Gun Show” is all about holding back. The action, if we can call a monologue “action” (Aristotle certainly would not) is loosely framed around five stories involving guns, recounted from the playwrights’ life, which range from the idyllic to the tragic.

The first – and the only one that doesn’t succeed – is a recitation of the climax of the film “Reservoir Dogs.” A story that tells the story of another story is an oft-​used conceit, usually to pump-​up the emotional intensity in an easy, cheap way, like when a band plays recorded music before the start of a concert to whip up the crowd. It’s too much “telling” in a play that has to depend on a lot of telling, and very little “showing.”

But things become interesting as things always do when they become personal. We learn of the playwright’s romance with the man who becomes her husband. We hear how they bonded over guns, how important guns are if you live in rural Oregon, and how enjoyable it is to go shooting in the woods. The Freudian associations of guns, courtship, and sexual titillation simmer throughout these recollections, and the big, black flashlight, which sits on the desk and is picked up by Smith throughout the play, becomes a sort of gun that is pointed at the author again and again.

Director Shelia McKenna takes an organic, less-​is-​more approach, which is fitting, because the Carnegie Library space is simply a lecture platform – hardly a formal stage – and nothing is done to detract from the idea that this is about members of a community coming together to share an experience in a bonding environment. Thus, all superfluous dramatic trappings are eschewed. We could be sitting there waiting for a book discussion. It’s not Hamlet in street clothes; it’s more like bringing the Living Theater to the local chess club.

Steve Shapiro’s sound designs come off like Brian Eno’s statement about ambient music, which he felt “should be as ignorable as interesting,” and is high praise in this context. And the same can be said for C. Todd Brown’s lighting.

I would encourage people to see this show because it might be the one time you hear about the joys and horrors of gun ownership, and how it can result in love and death, but not be told what to think about it. Thankfully, this is not a didactic, let alone, political work.

However, the performance doesn’t really offer us a catharsis, either. Nothing actually changes in the character, and I would question whether it does in the audience – which Smith constantly addresses, sometimes as “you” and sometimes as “America.”

The only truly disappointing aspect of the piece – especially for a serious theatrical work – are the predication clichés you always hear, like “I own a gun” or “I don’t want to take your guns away.” These expressions are recycled so often in public conversations that they have turned into political chestnuts. It’s the same kind of a doublespeak – to use a post-​Orwellian term – ostensibly thrown out by politicians to incur good faith, when they really mean, on a deeper level, “How can I talk about this and appear to tackle it, but still stay in/​run for office?”

At the end of the play we are left in the wake of this well-​acted tableaux of stories with a sense of tragedy; but, in a tragic age, does the recounting of yet another tragedy achieve anything?

The character tells us that “This gun thing is about safety and that’s what we all have in common. We want to be safe.” Yet his syllogism: “Guns don’t equal safety. No-​guns doesn’t equal safety” is never concluded. It’s a null set. We are given a dialectic without a synthesis. Instead, the character is resigned to admitting, “I know that this is complicated, but we are in this together.”

If there is any sense of denouement it occurs in the post-​show “conversation” – admirably facilitated by Quantum’s Patron Services Associate, T.J. Parker-​Young – when the audience is given the opportunity to share its stories. It’s at this point that the we really come away with something. If not a catharsis, or conclusion, then certainly a stronger sense of community.

“The Gun Show” continues through March 3rd at the following locations:

February 817: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Homewood
February 2024: CCAC – Allegheny Campus, West Hall
February 27 – March 3: The Tull Family Theater

Tickets $3337. 4123621713 or www​.quan​tumthe​atre​.com

Stuart Sheppard

Stuart Sheppard is a novelist, critic, and management consultant. Follow him: @HamletsMachine

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