Simplified characterizations overshadow student motives in “8”

Political art, at its very least, should seek to put across its message without scrambling it. This doesn't mean it can't be complex, oblique or obfuscated; however, it fails when it undermines its own message.

Despite the best efforts of its cast, “8,” which was performed in a live-script reading on Friday March 1, does just this, and much more.

The play centers on a fictionalized version of the closing arguments in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger - the infamous trial that led to the eventual overturn of Proposition 8 - as it was argued before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Senior Rachel Tamarin staged the reading, which was presented by the women's studies and English departments.

With no clear star and relying heavily on its ensemble, “8” nevertheless featured memorable readings from seniors Dara Gell and Sean Leigh. Gell and Leigh play roles as lawyers opposing each other in a showdown over an anti-marriage equality amendment to California's constitution.

In playwright Dustin Lance Black's - the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of 2008's Milk - version of the trial, Leigh's character, defense lawyer Charles Cooper is a snarling, stammering agent of evil, a cornered animal. His allies are also either grossly incompetent or malicious buffoons.

The quality of Leigh and other villainous characters' performances could simply have to do with the quality of the dialogue available to them, which is meatier than that of other characters in the play. Yet, to deny the problems in Cooper's characterization, and truthfully every other anti-marriage equality character, would be dishonest.

“8” is designed to be performed in this sort of atmosphere. It was publicized as being offered free of charge to colleges and community theatre groups thanks to the American Foundation for Equal Rights. In this respect, Geneseo's performance was, much like those that people see all over the country, low tech and even amateur. Black, by designing the play politically, intended for this.

If only Black's play conveyed his argument to match the spirit of the performers. He frequently undermines his own message by playing on arguments not made in the court proceedings. Instead he uses cheap juxtaposition and volume rather than evidence.

This is excessively frustrating because the decision in Perry, as well as in its unsuccessful appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, is an unapologetic moral, ethical, cultural and legal victory for our society. By reducing its villains to two-dimensional caricatures, “8” obscures the oft successful mix of folksy discrimination and legal terminology that proponents of amendments like Proposition 8 use.

Ultimately, “8” flatters audiences without edifying them and wastes the enthusiasm of the students grouped to perform it.