The ghost of Bertie Brecht wanders the stage of Defunkt Theatre in the premiere of The Undiscovered Country, DC Copeland’s new play about love and pain and the whole damned thing among the addicted and emotionally unmoored seekers of a big American city. Matthew Kern, as a lonely drug dealer named Terry (or, professionally, “Bear”), announces to the audience right at the top that what’s about to happen isn’t reality, it’s a play, and then gives away a few plot points before anything’s happened, and invites anyone who’s uncomfortable about the subject matter to exit the theater, no questions asked. (Of course, nobody does: that deck’s just a little stacked.) All in all, diabolically dialectical.
Other ghosts are wandering about, too, some of them actual characters in the play. And certainly the shades of Billy Shakespeare and his gloomy Danish prince are crashing the party: Copeland’s title, after all, comes from Hamlet’s lament about the weariness of life, which surely no one would put up with except for “the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” The people in Copeland’s play are continually contemplating that ultimate question, to be or not to be. They fear it, and they love it. It consumes them.
Lingering in the lines like a ghost in the machine is some of the fateful anguish of the musical Rent, Jonathan Larson’s Bohème-in-modern-Manhattan. And, just a little under the surface, I spy the spectre of Chris Marlowe and The Jew of Malta, with its black heart and curdled damn-the-consequences doom: “Thou hast committed fornication: but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.”
In other words: If you’re looking for a night of laughs, keep looking. There is heat on this stage, but it’s a bleak heat, desperate and about to burn out. So you find yourself, if you buy into the play’s closed universe, taking pleasure in the increasingly dire straits the characters place themselves in, and that’s a bit uncomfortable, forcing you outside the action as you dive deeper into it: Brecht’s dialectic in action. The Undiscovered Country has some of the fevered propulsion of revenge tragedy, and the same propensity for melodrama. It’s as if these lost characters in the naked city are caught in a cycle of hopeless fate: no escape.
In a bracingly stripped-down space (smart set by Max Ward, lighting by Peter West, costumes [which take a bit of rumpling] by Annie Ganousis, sound by Andrew Klaus-Vineyard) Copeland & Company dig deeply and fiercely into the action, which involves pill-popping, heavy breathing both straight and gay, a fatal attraction to a weapon or two, and a mournful sense of disconnection, of characters wanting to love but not knowing how. Drugs and other obsessions that spur the action and the downward spiral are displacements in this universe, attempts to plug gaps that just keep getting wider and deeper. Director Paul Angelo creates a fine rhythm out of all of this, taking his time to dig into the moments but never letting the thing lag.
Everyone but Kern doubles up on roles, playing characters who are distinct yet swimming in the same dangerous pool. He’s joined by Lauren Modica, in yet another densely focused performance, as a woman reeling after her lover’s death; and Spencer Conway as a guilt-wracked hunk; and newcomer Lynn Sher as a couple of doomed souls taking refuge in drugs and sex (in one role, speaking of ghosts, she’s an actress playing Ophelia to Conway’s Hamlet). A good deal of the show’s pleasure comes from watching these fierce, sometimes funny, sometimes aching performances, which can leave you exasperated (how can their characters do this stuff?) without losing empathy. Sher sometimes slips inside these uncomfortable shoes with such an addled absorption that her voice becomes something like Ophelia’s in her mad-song, a slur of words that almost lose their shape.
In the end, Copeland’s play seems something like an emotional group snapshot, with no sense of direction other than down. You don’t know how these characters got to this place in their lives, or how they found one another (except for some recovery programs), or even why they seem to feel there is no future. That’s just the way it is: a mystery. After all, the country’s undiscovered. At least, for now.
Defunkt’s world premiere of The Undiscovered Country continues through June 20 in the Backdoor Theatre, behind Common Grounds Coffeehouse, 4321 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. Schedule and ticket information are here.