MINNEAPOLIS — "The comic alone is capable of giving us the strength to bear the tragedy of existence," Eugene Ionesco wrote.
That seems to be the strategy adopted by playwright Arthur Miller, author of such sobering classics as "The Crucible" and "Death of a Salesman," in his new play "Resurrection Blues," being given its world première through Sept. 8 at the Guthrie Theater here.
Comedy, or more specifically, satire, may seem like odd ground for Miller to tread. But it's been an important element of his nontheatrical writing for years. (In fact, his 1992 satirical essay in The New York Times encouraging public executions in the United States surely informed the play.) The humor here is dark and sharp-edged, more often bringing a crooked smile than a belly laugh.
It also reminds us that theater works best as a collective dream, an entrance into a world that operates not quite as ours but whose characters and conditions tell us about ourselves.
"Resurrection" unfolds in a fictional South American country where the oppressive military government has caught, and plans to crucify, what it believes to be a rebel leader. In exchange for $25 million, an American company has bought the rights to televise the execution to the world. It sends in a production crew that usually makes commercials to do the job.
As the task is revealed by her unscrupulous producer, Skip, director Emily Shapiro is appalled. But her career will be destroyed if she fails to go along. After all, Skip offers, the crew is not responsible for the execution. They are only observers. Perhaps the televised event will appall the world and speed the end of such cruelty.
Henri Schultz, a wealthy businessman turned guilt-ridden "philosopher," and a cousin to the dictator, tries to persuade Emily, who has caught the dictator's wandering eye, to change his mind about going through with the execution of the rebel leader, whom peasants are calling a Christ figure. But is the rebel, who is never seen by the audience, actually the son of God? Is he working miracles? Does he even exist?
As the absurdity compounds, Miller skillfully skewers commercialism and greed.
He's aided by a uniformly excellent cast, with special nods to Bruce Bohne as Stanley, a drug-addled follower of the rebel leader whose comic Fool provides much of the play's wisdom; and John Bedford Lloyd, who makes dictator Gen. Felix Barriaux much more than the expected blustering Latin strong man, mixing to perfection a brew of comic foibles.
Is "Resurrection" great Arthur Miller? It surely deserves and surely will get more stagings. But it seems too short on memorable characters and plausible relationships to match his early works.
If capitalism leaves us cruel and greedy, if socialism is too idealistic and impractical, and if religion is to ephemeral and unreliable to be of any aid, what is left to help us bear the tragedy of existence? We must love one another as we are able, Miller says, especially our families. Little can be done to change this world of evils and excesses. But we must do the little acts of kindness because we can.
In the end, "Resurrection" serves up a dark view of our world, where the light of hope shines intermittently, and where love and humor serve to ease, but not eliminate, the pain.