Friday, February 4, 2011

Hearts Are Monsters

Hearts and Bones
Three Newish Plays About the Perils of Desire

by Brendan Kiley

ll three of this week's plays have dark emotional gravity—they're all about desires that end in death—but only one dresses its grim substance with vivid, alluring style. Hearts Are Monsters, a loose riff on Hamlet, fills the small stage at Rendezvous with the gallows humor and elegant garishness of a 1970s exploitation film: The gym coach, Mr. Snell, has ramrod military bearing and lots of rouge on his cheeks. Jack, the alpha jock, wears too much eye makeup and a toy guitar with a hot-pink vinyl strap. The nerdy heroine, named Marcy, has a side ponytail, an unusually shaped head, and the gulping, too-fast speech of a terminal dork. Her twin sister, Wendy, is a randy cheerleader with breasts that could clobber a man to death. And their mother, an aristocratic drunk, perches tipsily on the couch in an evening gown, reminiscing about trysts in the Burmese jungle: "Every day, I saw this God-like man tearing through the underbrush glistening like a betel nut," she drawls. "One night, I went to his tent wearing nothing but stilettos and a turban."

"Is that how you met Daddy?" Marcy asks.
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"Oh goodness no. I met your father at a college social. He put rum in the punch bowl, and we necked in his Buick. He was very rich so I married him."

Monsters has a style that hovers somewhere between John Waters, Daniel Waters (Heathers), and Jack Hill (Switchblade Sisters, Foxy Brown), but Kelleen Conway Blanchard's world-premiere script bristles with dense, dirty intelligence, and the jokes come thick and fast.

After an electrician discovers the mummified body of the sisters' father beneath the kitchen floor, Marcy vows to avenge him. But, just like Hamlet, her big brain keeps derailing her bloody intentions. When the ghost of Marcy's father visits her bedroom (in the form of a projected skull silhouette with an enormous pompadour), he intones: "The air is foul. It smells of muuuuurder!"

"I think it might be my mole rats," Marcy says cheerfully, holding two of the gnarly, hairless creatures. "Baby mole rats are raised on a diet of their older siblings' fecal pellets. It's all really fascinating—"

"The air smells of my unavenged muuuuuurder!" the pompadoured skull cuts in.

"I know. I do," she says. "Don't worry. I've been super looking around. But it's been six years, and a lot of the forensics are compromised." Plus, she has bad dreams.

"Terrifying dreams of my death?" he asks hopefully.

No, it turns out: "I'm at school and I've just won the state science fair for my study linking beauty, social status, and explosive rectal cancer. I'm on the podium making my speech when everything goes black and a tiny voice whispers, 'Marcy, your findings are flawed,' and then I explode from my rectum. It's a pretty bad dream. Really detailed."

The ghost evaporates in a fit of pique.

The cast, directed by Bret Fetzer, never plays the script for camp, but delivers the craziest lines with a dead-ahead seriousness that makes the comedy that much sharper. Like the cheerleader (the long-legged and eyelash-batting Erin Pike) explaining to the coach why she can't remember how many men she's had sex with: "You know my mind wanders. Sometimes during sex I think about traffic accidents or that guy in China that was born with all those extra hands—I bet he looks awesome wearing all of his little gloves."

Or Coach Snell (James Weidman and his mustache) saying: "According to Mrs. Schnabel, you've been acting out in home science class. She says on Tuesday you refused to partner up with Melissa Jensen and threatened to 'slam her vagina into the film projector' when she encouraged you to pay attention to the showing of LSD: A Young Woman's Flight to Madness."

Or the mother (Karen Heaven) drawling to the distressed Marcy (Erin Stewart): "Marcy, everyone has problems. Even me. When you two were little babies, they took you away. The Social Services say you can't feed babies tiny martinis to help them sleep, even if they like tiny martinis and hold out their little hands for them when you walk by with a bottle of vodka. Those were black days. I had to go to court and pay a fine. But then you two got so famous for falling down that well."

I could go on quoting from Blanchard's script and reliving the fun—but it would be best if you just went and had the fun yourself.

Intiman Theatre is in a little trouble. On November 1, managing director Brian Colburn resigned suddenly. A few days later, board president Kim Anderson confirmed rumors of financial distress, writing in an ­e-mail that "operational oversight has fallen short of Intiman's high standards." The theater is behind on payments to creditors, vendors, and unions, and will conduct a "full financial audit" to unearth the extent of the damage. "Early indications," she said, "have reassured the board of trustees that we are in a good position to continue operations." Which is better than being in a bad position to continue operations—but not as good as knowing for certain.

It would be convenient if Intiman's current production, a world-premiere adaptation of The Scarlet Letter by the prolific and award-winning Naomi Iizuka, were fantastic. But it isn't. Since nobody wants to kick a theater when it's down, let's approach gently.

Iizuka is one of American theater's fashionable fabulists. Along with Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House) and Mary Zimmerman (The Secret in the Wings), Iizuka writes plays as contemporary myths, sometimes with archetypes instead of characters and poetic affectation as a means toward dramatic truth.

This strategy has dangers: It can be alienating, holding the heat of a story hostage to a formal, academic conceit. (Iizuka has collaborated with Anne Bogart, who has built a career out of cold, formal theater.) And this Scarlet Letter has a stiff chill that doesn't do Hawthorne's story—which was initially criticized for its "painful emotions" and "morbid intensity"—any favors.

Renata Friedman begins telling the story as Pearl, the bastard daughter of Hester Prynne and some mystery man in their Puritan community. As tall and pale as the beech trunks of Peter Ksander's moody set, Pearl describes her distant memory of her mother as "like something I can touch, like a flicker of something at the edge of my eye, brushing against me, against the back of my neck, the side of my face." The adulteress Hester (Zabryna Guevara) enters, spilling out poetic lines: "A tingling inside of me, a queasy and delicious sensation, a thrumming in my belly, deep in my belly, a kind of vibration..." and so on.

The words are supposed to be disturbing and arousing, recalling Pearl's painful childhood memories and Hester's delicious sin, which will become the fulcrum of the story. But these overwritten passages feel less like sin than a mannered exercise. The play is at its best in the more straightforward dialogue—R. Hamilton Wright, as the doctor Chillingworth (and Hester's humiliated husband), does particularly well in these passages, as he slowly plots his revenge against Hester's lover (the haunted and guilty minister, played by Frank Boyd). This Scarlet Letter, directed by Lear deBessonet, has its moments, including a pretty and haunting score for computer and violin by Todd Reynolds. But it is not Intiman at its best.

While Hearts Are Monsters and The Scarlet Letter use style to greater or lesser effect, Adam Rapp's Red Light Winter (2005) is all about naturalism: a kitchen-sink drama for the 21st century. Two American friends, Davis and Matt (Tim Gouran and Richard Nguyen Sloniker) are on vacation in Amsterdam. Matt, a tenderhearted playwright, is depressed—in part because Davis, a chest-thumping jerk, stole his girlfriend years ago and is now engaged to marry her. Davis thinks a hooker will cheer Matt up. He returns with Christina (Mariel Neto), a buxom woman with a French accent and enough secrets to last anyone a lifetime.

What follows is a (sometimes predictable) story of unrequited love, betrayal, and quietly brutal consequences. Director Desdemona Chiang lets the play breathe with slow, silent sequences (which are, at times, too slow—the play's emotions could be made more intense if it picked up the pace in spots). Gouran, as the jerk Davis, is Red Light Winter's guilty pleasure. He livens up whatever scene he's in with his blunderbuss selfishness—oddly, he inspires the most pity. While the other characters explore deep and suicidal levels of despair, the lights dim on an unchanged Davis. You get the feeling that he has miles to go before he hits rock bottom. recommended

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