Theater review: Go ahead, embrace your inner primate

Mario Calcagno and Kerry Ryan lamb it up in "Hunter Gatherers"/Gary Norman

A batch of playwrights is emerging, “red in tooth and claw,” having savaged whatever poor illusions we might have had about “civilized” life and love. And their plays have been popping up on Portland stages. I’m thinking specifically of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” (which Artists Rep played sharply in the fall) and Bruce Norris’ “The Pain and the Itch (produced by Third Rail Repertory Theatre in October), though Adam Rapp’s “Animals and Plants” (CoHo Productions) also figures.

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s “Hunter Gatherers,” which opened last weekend at Theatre Vertigo, fits into this group, though a little uneasily perhaps. It’s a farce, and we can might lose sight of its point — that we are all just a blood sacrifice and a few swipes of the leg of lamb away from our earliest ancestors on the African savannah — in the laughter. Director Tom Moorman has a good eye for comic chances and the actors gobble them up.

Let’s see: Pam (Kerry Ryan) and Richard (Mario Calcagno) are throwing their annual anniversary dinner for their dearest friends Wendy (Brooke Fletcher) and Tom (Joel Harmon), who drive into town from their suburban home. Richard always tries to top his previous anniversary meal (we learn quickly that he’s a pretty competitive guy), and this year, lamb is on the menu. The “special” chapter in “The Joy of Cooking” suggests the freshest possible lamb. Hey, what’s moving around in that box? Alrighty then.

The death of the lamb should be a warning. More blood is going to be shed this night. The male libido and will to power will be busting its buttons alongside the female craving for procreation. Tom will find meaning in life. Wendy will utter delirious lines of deep womb yearning. Tom’s negotiation with his sexuality will start to go well and take a turn for the worse. Pam will begin the evening addled by conventional notions of love and marriage but emerge stronger for it, headed for the woods with a plate of brownies and a new resolve.

I tried to imagine this as a sit-com, but as daring (in some ways) as our sit-coms have become, they won’t go this dark or quite this funny. Fletcher as Wendy probably has the most fun because Nachtrieb gives her those “delirious lines” I was talking about, and she plays her character’s voracious neediness with delicious abandon. Calcagno plays Richard with the appropriately nutty gleam in his eye. Harmon endures as the victim, though that makes his revolt more interesting. And Ryan plays her uprising against the oppressors with a nice growing enlightenment.

If candy canes are still dancing in your head and you want to break them into a thousand pieces and grind them into the linoleum (and you don’t mind some violence and sex talk), “Hunter Gatherers” may be just the ticket.

Are there any other conclusions to be drawn from “Hunter Gatherers”? Maybe that we are inevitably undone by our frailties, personal histories and outsized desires? I don’t know about conclusions, but Nachtrieb pauses for a few nice moments. “Driving is the worst thing about living in the city,” Pam says, “that and the sadness.” That happens to be our first hint that Pam knows her hubby Richard is apparently willing to couple with almost anyone — and he does. But maybe her sadness is more profound than that.

But the show doesn’t dwell on sadness. Oh no. My own favorite line: “And when you lose faith in your friends, what’s left?” Pause. “Revenge.” Farces don’t dwell on anything, they thrive on action, increasingly bizarre action that somehow still makes sense. They make you forget the sadness in fact, and embrace your inner ape. Which you can’t do in real life (well, not intentionally), which is one of the things the theater is for, after all.

NOTES

A version of this review appeared in a post on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Arts and Life page.

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