Review: Defunkt Theatre’s ‘States of Emergency’

Sure, Crimp is twisted and Durang's deranged … but Defunkt doesn't shy from tough shows

Midway through the second act of Defunkt Theatre‘s Fewer Emergencies, Steve Vanderzee’s alone onstage. His voice is as deadpan as cast iron, his face as vacant as a waxwork, and he’s describing a school shooting: “He shoots Child A in the head. He shoots Child B in the head. Child C … flinches away. Flinches away?”

The actor falters, jerks his head, squints, begins his recitation again:

“He shoots Child A in the head. He shoots Child B in the head…”

In my chair, I start to feel unsettled. Have I left the teakettle on? Should I make a run for one of the theater’s three exits? Is my home burning down while I sit here squirming? Damn you, Vanderzee, you’re actually scaring me….

White and Vanderzee in "Fewer Emergencies." Rosemary Ragusa Photography

White and Vanderzee in “Fewer Emergencies.” Rosemary Ragusa Photography

Defunkt’s season-closing suite, States of Emergency, is comprised of two plays in rep: Martin Crimp’s Fewer Emergencies and Christopher Durang’s Betty’s Summer Vacation. Fair warning, Crimp is twisted and Durang’s deranged — and Vanderzee plays a convincing psycho killer in each show. Though Emergency‘s generally suspenseful and Vacation rings comic, the shows are two peas in the same rotten pod. Spoiler alert: humanity’s hideously flawed.

Behind every great homicidal maniac, it seems, there’s a blithely monstrous woman, and each of these plays has one sick mother. Fewer Emergencies‘ “Mummy” (Angela White) and Vacation‘s Mrs. Sizemagraff (Jane Bement Geesman) are so mired in denial and so sozzled on booze and self-congratulation that they’re content to watch their children suffer. “What he’s losing in blood, he’s gaining in confidence!” exudes Mummy, stretching out her arms and grinning gloriously under pained brows to pantomime the time she coaxed her son — freshly shot in the legs — to crawl to her. Mrs. Sizemagraff pauses from preening, drinking, and wooing sexual predators off the street to flip her hand dismissively at her molested daughter Trudy: “She’s worthless! … No, she’s wonderful!” [guzzle, primp, pose]. Happy Mother’s Day, Portland.

Murderers, mothers … and the similarity doesn’t end there. Each show also makes space for the proverbial Peanut Gallery — a handful of generic voices that, for no specific reason, offer their opinions and try to shape the greater story. Both scripts wax particularly poetic about small pleasures (a child’s toys, the sound of the ocean, TV) while ignoring major atrocities (rape, destruction, dismemberment, death). And in both cases — believe it or not — this sensory rhapsody almost sways us against our better judgment. Mother’s right, the voices are appeased, nothing’s wrong, we should just relax and stop screaming.

Fewer Emergencies doesn’t explicitly call for anyone to play specific roles; it’s written in third person with no stage directions or character names, allowing very flexible interpretation.* However, after much workshopping, Defunkt director Jon Kretzu asked White and Vanderzee to embody the characters their lines were describing. Suddenly, what could read as detached postmodern commentary is brought to life as full-blown psychodrama. Subtitled scene breaks and lighting shifts from cool ultraviolet to deep red also help us parse Crimp’s cryptic text into a series of events.

Beyond Mummy and the shooter, the other actors don’t register as characters, per se. More like a chorus in the round, they burst in to clarify whatever Mummy says, contributing a general ethos of speculation and inaccuracy. While we often see an unreliable narrator, we rarely see one vetted for honesty by semi-anonymous agents onstage. It’s vaguely comparable to courtroom drama, but nonetheless a unique conceit. It’s also poetic, causing dialogue to flow into a regular cadence of repeated echoes, pauses, and rejoinders. Eerily, Vanderzee’s monologue progresses with the same halting structure, unaccompanied by “the voices.” “Don’t help me!” he repeatedly snaps, even though no one is. Perhaps he’s killed all of his detractors and interjectors by this point?

The cast confessed in talkback that all these asides, stops, and starts made Emergencies particularly hard to memorize … even hard to connect with artistically until they created secret “backstories” for the fluid supporting roles. Unofficially, they’ve dubbed Lori Sue Hoffman’s character “Pippa” and assigned her her own secret reasons for grilling Mummy with what seem like caseworker questions. They’ve also posed Matthew Kern as Mummy’s protective and somewhat complicit husband. Corey O’Hara**, a wild card who chimes into the dialogue with no apparent story-related character, gets his moment leading a brilliant singalong of a self-penned melody with a banjo. Unfortunately, these tacit character designations intrigue without fulfilling — which means, in effect, they distract. Kern, especially, spits every line with such significance that we’re tricked into thinking we’ll learn more about his character. Since we never do, it’d be better if the Defunkt mainstay and self-confessed Crimp super-fan would lean back and let the story shine.

Sob story: Tallent and Geesman in "Betty." Rosemary Ragusa Photography

Sob story: Tallent and Geesman in “Betty.” Rosemary Ragusa Photography

Betty’s Summer Vacation establishes an atmosphere of lighthearted leisure (beachfront cottage, bathing suits, cute-guy roommates, funny friend) and pours in a grab bag of mingled humor and horror (a cartoonish rapist/flasher in a trench coat, a lovably shy killer, a grown woman who talks to a doll, walls that eavesdrop and laugh at the characters) to lock the audience in stunned uncertainty. There’s no such thing as an appropriate audience reaction to any of the stuff that happens in this show — a fact that’s made even plainer when “the voices” point it out: “We’re very disturbed. We’re not sure we feel like laughter.”

The performances are caricatures, drawn broadly but aptly by character actors. Betty (Allie Pratt) is the “voice of reason,” sharing a vacation rental with her chatty, disturbed friend Trudy (Kelly Tallent), sexually insatiable surfer bro Buck (William Poole), and the quiet, uptight Keith (Vanderzee). They’re soon encroached upon by the cottage owner, Mrs. Sizemagraff (Geesman), who turns out to also be Trudy’s mom. Making herself at home immediately, Mrs. Sizemagraff invites a truly rogue element: Mr. Vanislaw, a flasher she met in the park (Joe Healy) … and … ahem, mayhem ensues.

Steeped in pop-culture reference, the script name-drops its inspirations directly: David Mamet’s Oleanna, Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall, CourtTV, and all of the high-profile trials from contemporary memory — Bobbitt, OJ, Clarence Thomas, you name it. But the closest we get to justice is a living room mock trial, where the increasingly bizarre Mrs. Sizemagraff takes over and both interrogates and defends herself.

Wait…isn’t “mock-CourtTV” redundant? Does a mockery of a mockery of justice work like a double negative in a sentence? Do the two layers of facetiousness cancel each other out to make a noble statement? Hard to say, but Durang thoroughly explores the form. Summer Vacation, I must say, feels long, forcing the audience to persist in its decision to laugh or not laugh at off-color jokes that recur and escalate literally ad nauseam. (“We feel sick. Bluuurrrghhh,” comment the ever-present voices.) This is Durang at his most cynical, and that’s really saying something. However, the show is saved by one major late-breaking surprise, and by Betty’s uncannily vulnerable, charming closing soliloquy.

Defunkt’s States of Emergency diptych is not for sensitive souls with susceptible guts. It comes with trigger warnings galore. Still, there may be some redemption, some catharsis, some context. After all, “no emergencies” would be unrealistic. So we try for fewer … with more wry laughter and dark fascination on the side.

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* The same was apparently true for Theatre Vertigo’s Pool (No Water), which, according to director Samantha Van Der Merwe, could also have been done without direct character portrayals…but seemed much richer for them.

** Also a playwright, O’Hara co-wrote and acted in Fertile Ground standout Middle Names.

 

 

 

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