Undying’s easy. Comedy’s hard.
It’s late October, and the Undead are rising up from underfoot everywhere. In graveyards. On your neighbors’ porches. At the high school homecoming dance. In political debates. Heck, they’re probably Unpeopling the butcher counter at your local grocery store.
Ah, but a FUNNY zombie. People would kill for something like that. Or at least buy a ticket.
I went out over the weekend and caught three shows in Portland that deftly blended the horrific and the humorous. Only one dealt with actual zombies: BodyVox dance’s creepy-funny revival (appropriate word) of its Halloween-season spectacle “BloodyVox.” But the Undead, or at least the scarily human, were stomping around in other places, too. Defunkt Theatre’s production of Harold Pinter’s 1965 modern classic “The Homecoming” (yes, it’s been almost a half-century!) locates the ghoulish inside the domestic mundane: Pinter provides the pregnant pause, and out pops Rosemary’s baby. And Annie Baker’s slyly hip 2008 play “Body Awareness,” at CoHo Theater, digs a little deeper and discovers that the zombies might be lurking inside us, waiting to chomp their ways out and complicate our lives no end.
Disclosure No. 1: Gretchen Corbett, the director and co-star of “Body Awareness,” serves on ArtsWatch’s board of directors. Disclosure No. 2: Paul Angelo, director of “The Homecoming,” has taught my son in acting classes. Well, it’s a small town. So shoot me. Or just chomp my flesh. We’ve all gotta go sometime.
I like “Body Awareness” quite a lot, both for the sureness of this production and for the way that Baker subtly nudges the comic into the dramatic and back again. This is one of three plays she’s set in the mythical Shirley, Vermont, a little college town where rock-ribbed New England traditionalism bumps into new-agey academia. Artists Rep gave “Circle Mirror Transformation” a sharp production in February and Third Rail will close its current season in April with the last of the trio, “The Aliens,” in the CoHo space, so Portland’s in the midst of a splendid little Shirley/Baker mini-festival.
One of the pleasures of “Body Awareness” is the way that Baker straddles the fissure between parody and compassion and emerges unscathed. She pokes a lot of fun at her characters – especially Phyllis (Gretchen Corbett), a psychology prof who’s organized an extremely politically correct Body Awareness Week on campus and seems to have inadvertently invited as resident artist a photographer, Frank (Gavin Hoffman), who specializes in nude portraits of women and girls. As Phyllis considers this both creepy and borderline illegal, and as Frank has been assigned to bunk down for the week in her apartment, this causes some tense complications. Phyllis’s partner, Joyce (Sharonlee McLean), a high school teacher, is a lot more open to the possibilities: she loves Frank’s photos, a fact that drives Phyllis, who seems to view all male thoughts and actions through a prism of the despised historical patriarchy, into a political and personal tizzy. And Joyce’s son, Jared (Josh Weinstein), who’s in his early 20s and obsessed with the dictionary and has a pretty severe if undiagnosed case of Asperger Syndrome and is still living at home with Joyce and Phyllis, seems starved for a father figure of any kind. A lot of assumptions about the way life should be, and some pretty traumatic bumping between intellectual belief and emotional reality, get tested and found, if not wanting, at least in need of a major overhaul. Like Portland, Shirley appears to exist inside an uber-liberal bubble – and the bubble’s about to burst.
This is one of those lovely ensemble productions where everything meshes. From Hoffman’s wooden-flute tooting to McLean’s generous laughter and her own stressed-out tears, Corbett, who also directs, gets the music of the dramedy exactly right. Hoffman plays the strong but sensitive male thing like an evolved guy fervently banging his drum in the woods, and Weinstein is a predictably unpredictable head-banging hammer as Jared. Corbett and McLean are brilliantly matched: Corbett the fierce and piercing yet oddly fragile arrow, McLean the encompassing spirit who can soothe and calm her down. What’s remarkable is that, as much as these four people can come across as satirical cartoons, they emerge with both compassion and dignity. In the end, Baker and Corbett and the entire cast hold these characters in deep affection, and their comic foibles become just another part of coping with the pressures of the Deeply Feared and Unknown. It’s scary, all right. But not fatal. For now, at least, Death takes a holiday.
From “Dracula” to “Blacula” to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” it’s been clear for a long time that sex and death go together in the popular imagination like arsenic and old lace. If you take away the actual death part (although Uncle Max does collapse in an alarming heap on the floor) Pinter’s “The Homecoming” fits the shock-flick picture to an intellectualized T. Ruth, the quietly triumphant femme fatale of this darkly funny family drama, is a kind of cross between a Siren in a stormy sea and a mama spider in a den of flies. The twist is that, while the play is certainly about her rise to power over a house of males, it’s equally about the emotionally incestuous nature of the little male-flies who step so eagerly into her feminine web. It’s share and share alike, boys. Even if you wind up being what’s shared.
There are lots of ways to play Pinter’s famous pauses, from barely whispered rhythmic undercurrents to deliberately exaggerated expressionistic gaps. I happen to prefer an underplayed, musically suggestive underscoring, rarely noticed but always felt, because I think a subtly tightened naturalism makes it easier to flesh out the barely concealed savagery in the plays. But that’s not the only way to do this thing. Angelo, who directs Defunkt’s production, likes to bring the pauses to the surface, stretching the string to a near-breaking point. In his hands the play becomes astringent music, a sharp chamber-ensemble attack, like a brisk and brittle bit of Bartok. He strips the language clean and lays out the structure like a skeleton in the living room, on horrifying and hysterical display for all to see.
That’s hysterical as in funny. What I like best about this production is that Angelo and his actors understand that underneath its tics and weirdness Pinter’s approach to theater is also extremely comic, a fact that unfortunately eludes a lot of directors. A play like “The Homecoming” seems inspired equally by British music hall and bedtime tales of boogie men. The humor’s dry, not wet. But it’s inescapably there. And, yes, in its way the play was revolutionary. I like what John Lahr once wrote about it in The New Yorker: “ ‘The Homecoming’ changed my life. Before the play, I thought words were just vessels of meaning; after it, I saw them as weapons of defense. Before, I thought theatre was about the spoken; after, I understood the eloquence of the unspoken.” Shall we dance?
The casting’s quite fine. This gristly household of thwarted testosterone includes a snappish Blaine Palmer as Max, the patriarch and retired butcher; William Wilson as his brother, the smooth and cultured chauffeur, Sam; David Bellis-Squires as the muscle-headed would-be pugilist brother, Joey; Zachary Rouse as the oddly condescending brother Teddy, the one who escaped to America and the consoling sinecure of a professoriate; and an oily, insinuatingly crackling Matthew Kern as Lenny, the cool fastidious brother who seems to be in the pimping game. And of course there is Grace Carter as Ruth, tidy Teddy’s wife, who is brought home to the family bosom, ostensibly for a visit, and who simply … settles in. Carter teases and provokes and shies away, and before you know it she’s whomp down on the couch or floor, and the game’s over. Eerily, the boys think they’ve won. Grisly goings-on, kids. The scariest part: This is not the family from Hell. It’s the family from next door. That is, if you happen to live in North London.
A shout-out to set designer Bill Tripp and the 21 people listed in the program as helping to build it: Surely the teeny-tiny Back Door Theatre, which is tucked behind a coffee shop on upper Hawthorne Boulevard, has rarely seen a more expansive stage. The family manse is rambling and dowdy and knocked out as wide and deep as it could be. Big play, big space. It’s a proper homecoming.
After all of this implied and sort-of horror, it felt good to drop in on BodyVox and “BloodyVox” for a bit of the real thing. Well, real in a jocular and oddly reassuring sort of way. I don’t want to call this show Halloween Lite, because that implies dismissiveness, and I don’t at all mean to dismiss this show, which I like very much. It’s an affectionate, witty, and highly accomplished riff on the spooky games we all like to play. I had fun. And accomplished contemporary dance that also offers fun is a rare and good thing. Call it Comedy Halloween, a spaced-out night on zombie mountain.
The resident bodies of BodyVox have brought back this holiday show from a couple of years ago, and a fine uprising it is. On Saturday night (the show opened on Thursday) “BloodyVox” was looking in the pink of condition, even if it was a little gangrene around the gills. It seemed crisper than the first time around, more worked-in and sure of itself, and the result was a pretty constant tickle of the skeletally exposed funnybone. The purpose of “BloodyVox” isn’t to gross you out, or even scare you unduly. It’s to have fun with popular culture’s monster mash of graveyard conceits, from Bela Lugosi to Tales from the Crypt.
When “BloodyVox” debuted two years ago I lamented the lack of a master of ceremonies to guide the audience through its many bits, especially since the show kicks off with an ideal candidate in Jamey Hampton’s zoot-suited, silent film-style comedian, who speaks, hilariously, through an iPhone and iPad held up to his mouth. There’s still no single guide. But there are enough recurring characters with recurring bits – Hampton and Zachary Carroll’s dueling Zen masters, whom a woman a couple of seats down from me helpfully compared to Antonio Prohias’s “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon in Mad magazine; Jonathan Krebs’ sad-sack but muscular and agile Krebby the Clown, who’s settled into his jumpy skin and developed a true persona; and of course that dancing chorus of the Undead – to tie the show together nicely.
Seasonal show or not, “BloodyVox” shows off BodyVox’s signature attractions quite well: its brilliant costuming (much of it designed by Ashley Roland); its antic wit; its singular and group movement skills (what fun to see several bodies rolling under and over one another to create kinetic montages); its joy in the possibilities of film; its generous connection with its audience. The current company includes an energetic balance of veteran and younger performers, all well-trained in the BodyVox style. It is, again, a pleasure to realize what a gifted physical comedian Hampton is, in the tradition of Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd. And in this show Anna Marra strikes more than one sexy-funny pose, most notably as Little Miss Tough It, who not only attracts an adoring cadre of excited spiders (see: Ruth, “The Homecoming”) but cuddles them closely in her arms and casually cracks their scrawny little necks.