Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Theater review: The Pitchfork Disney at Broken Gears Theater in Dallas
This was a tough play to watch and grasp sometimes and, for me, was a disappointing letdown -- not so much in performance as in execution; in its conception.
The weekend of Halloween was upon us and I was in the mood for a bit of a thrill. I looked forward to seeing The Pitchfork Disney (presented by Broken Gears Project Theatre at Broken Gears Theater in Dallas through November 13), as I knew of Philip Ridley and his reputation but had seen none of his plays. What I didn't realize was the depth of his talent. His titles include painter, performance artist, author, playwright for adult and children's works, filmmaker, director, photographer, poet, and composer – indeed, quite the Renaissance man. He grew up and still lives in a rough section in the East End of London. The Pitchfork Disney, one of his earliest plays, received controversial acclaim. One article stated it was "generally regarded as the play to herald the arrival of a whole new generation of writers to the world of theatre." Yikes, those were certainly big shoes to fill.
Starting their second year, Broken Gears Project Theatre's co-Artistic Director, Elias Taylorson, named it the season of "Moving Arts." While they have found a home, literally, in Oak Lawn, the company has no qualms choosing new venues as the next project might require. For The Pitchfork Disney, this old house fit the bill almost to perfection.
Entering from the rear of the house, I stepped onto the back porch and into a tiny back room/lobby. Upon checking in, I was handed a flashlight and escorted into the "family's home." Taylorson himself led me through their small kitchen and into the dimly lit living room. Dusty objects and rusty tools remained on the mantel, hearth, and walls, untouched for years and laced with cobwebs. I was asked to look for clues as we then moved to the bedrooms of the two children. Again, clues and symbolism were there to be found and I took time to look at a series of yellowed photographs over one of their beds. One room of the house was boarded and obviously off-limits and when one of those boards fell off, Taylorson mentioned the house ghost might be present – ooooohhh!
Heading back to the porch, I waited with the evening's audience, a small group of all women which seemed odd but interesting. The whole experience so far was reminding me of The Living Theatre, the oldest experimental theatre group in the U.S. and noted for dissolving the fourth wall between audience and actors. They frequently performed pieces having the audience follow from room to room and that's what I hoped might happen with this production.
At curtain time, the audience was led back into the house and through a new door. I was anticipating it to be a small room where we would stand but was disappointed to step into a large room and the actual stage area with risers and chairs. Taking cues from a trashed and graffiti covered vacant building, Set Designer Cindy Ernst scribbled profanity, drew monsters and aircraft and two dates – June 10th and December 10th – over and over on the walls. More clues? The stage proper was a "family room" of sorts though with a refrigerator. It was filthy, trash-filled with clothing piled, paper bits strewn about and no semblance of home as the other rooms had been.
Perhaps taking ideas from his own childhood, Ridley and The Pitchfork Disney took us on a journey of fear; a dreamlike play dealing with those fears of children and adults alike. Set somewhere in East End London, adult fraternal twins Prestley and Haley were living out their own child nightmares and we quickly came to see their existence of chocolate fixation and the obliteration of reality through old medications left by parents who mysteriously disappeared ten years earlier. Where nightmares within nightmares pervade, Prestley and Haley were now reduced to paranoid delusions and an apocalyptic fear of the outside and its unknown. Through long, drug-induced monologues, we glimpsed bits of those childhood experiences held fast and fears that led to their current state of mind.
Prestley, being the only one to ever look out the window, noticed two strangers and raved on as to who they were and what they might be doing outside their home, accentuating Haley's paranoia. To calm her, as he frequently did, Prestley reduced Haley to a comatose state with the aid of the old drugs poured on her "dummy" (pacifier). The two strangers entered separately and Prestley and Haley's dream/reality world became invaded. The strangers' true intent was unclear, finally leaving both "child/adults" in deeper fear and disillusion.
This was a tough play to watch and grasp sometimes and, for me, was a disappointing letdown -- not so much in performance as in execution; in its conception. The first rooms we saw were more like teasers and held little connection to the staging area. All that great detail went to waste without a tie-in. I understood the airplane drawing connected to the father's military memorabilia. I got the childlike "bogeyman" drawings. The rest held little useful meaning.
Broken Gears Project Theatre described The Pitchfork Disney as "exploring ... the horrific, the violent, the terrifying and the perverse." While I kept silently rooting for it to be more, this production was none of those. It felt as if the director, Nathan Autrey, was afraid of the subject matter. The chance to be all those things the company described was available in this play but they failed to step over that edge. Violence is more potent mentally than physically. Horror strengthens through our imagination.
Yes, I truly felt repulsed with the characters' degradation and wanton behavior. However, I simply did not believe for one moment that the strangers, if they were real or in a dream, held any threat to either Prestley or Haley. I could not fathom why Prestley seemed so terrified by Cosmo Disney, the showman with a creepy talent or his freak show partner, Pitchfork Cavalier. Sexual scenarios and assaults were understated or watered down. Perverse is in the eye of the beholder and, other than the twin's unnatural sexual affection for each other, I beheld none.
Misty Venters and Clay Wheeler gave amazing and brave performances with a strange believability to their demented fantasy world. Their low-end London dialects were passable though occasionally were dropped. As Haley, the petite Ms. Venters was a whirlwind of insanity – all ranting and writhing with the flexibility of a rag doll. She fully opened herself to Haley's world of dementia. Though having the smaller of the two roles, even in silence, her presence was felt and she left me both sad and conflicted.
Clay Wheeler should be applauded for his physical endurance alone in the role of Prestley. In an almost constant state of agitation, he remained onstage for all but maybe two minutes of the play's length. His final, amazingly difficult dream monologue never lacked focus and his utter belief in the story kept me spellbound.
Showman Cosmo Disney, played by Joey Folsom, made his startling entrance with aplomb but never rose above all that fuss. If he's a part of Prestley's nightmare, where was the fear? I wondered why he didn't simply dismiss Disney or throw him out the door. Folsom's demeanor was so low-key as to be lifeless. I saw the showman's swagger but no depth as to why he was such a supposed threat to Prestley, real or imagined.
Marc C. Guerra, as Pitchfork Cavalier, was mute save for guttural noises and had to rely on his size and his burlap head mask for Prestley's vision in his reoccurring nightmare. Guerra's entrance and stage presence was easily unnerving but, as directed, his character's build was so understated, the significance of his only uttered word was lost and meaningless.
For this surreal, nightmare play, Costumer Designer Mallory Mooney's "inspiration came from all things dark but she ... enjoyed (adding) symbolism into the costumes." The men were dressed appropriately in worn out jeans, T's, flannel shirt, or heavy coat and ankle military boots. Disney arrived in performance attire – white shirt with sparkle vest, tie and bowler hat. I loved Cavalier's sculptured burlap mask which added dimension over just a bag with holes for eyes and mouth. A simple, long print dress hung on and fairly swallowed up Haley. Any symbolism from these costumes eluded me.
Lighting, by Designer Jacob Hall, was dim and eerie, using real light fixtures, black light, and behind-the-audience filler light. However, each audience member's slightest movement was accentuated in shadow on the stage walls, making one not want to move an inch.
As a performance piece, The Pitchfork Disney had moments that startled or repulsed, but Ridley was going for much more. This play dealt with all our childhoods and how certain fearful moments in our lives have the ability to stick with us and be re-lived over and over in ever increasing prominence and how those moments can change the path of our lives forever. Broken Gears Project Theatre's production opened that creaking door to our childish fears but never fully entered to the depths the play held. For shock value, stellar performances, and a haunted house experience, The Pitchfork Disney is worthy of a trip to the mind's dark side.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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