In ‘The Huntsmen” the doo-wop burns bright

A dark, eccentric play with music unleashes the tiger at Portland Playhouse

Dean Linnard, right, on the lam with Sharonlee McLean and Gavin Gregory/Brud Giles

Dean Linnard, right, on the lam with Sharonlee McLean and Gavin Gregory/Brud Giles

During a break between the staged readings of the new plays in Portland Center Stage’s JAW new-play festival in 2011, I caught Center Stage’s artistic directory Chris Coleman humming a song to himself. It was “Speedoo,” a ’50s doo-wop tune made famous by the Cadillacs, and it had featured prominently in a strange little musical play by Quincy Long, “The Huntsmen,” earlier in the festival.

“I can’t get that song out of my head,” Coleman said at the time. And I knew exactly what he meant, because I’d been singing it, too.

Here’s the song in all its ’50s glory.

I was a little disappointed when Coleman didn’t decide then and there to do the fully staged world premiere of Long’s play, but my disappointment didn’t last long. Portland Playhouse’s artistic director Brian Weaver saw the same staged reading, and he selected the play for the company’s 2012-13 season, and it opened with all its odd and disturbing pleasures intact and amplified on Saturday.

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Time, the culture, society—however you want to talk about it—things don’t stand still. And since Long created “The Huntsmen,” we’ve had a peculiarly savage event, involving a “difficult” young man, an uncontrollable impulse to murder and the means to get it done. Take away any of those elements and the citizens of Newtown, Connecticut, would still be going their merry way to gun shows and shooting ranges without a second thought in the world, and we’d have a completely different take on “The Huntsmen.” Because that’s what the play’s main character is—a difficult young man named Devon with murder on his mind.

Oops.

And so, as I watched it, my response to “Speedoo” and the other doo-wop organized songs composed by Michael Chinworth to Long’s lyrics, was a little less giddy than it was the first time I saw the show, way back in 2011, tempered by current events. As a nod to those events, that one awful event particularly, perhaps, Portland Playhouse has scheduled a panel (with Boom Arts) entitled “Troubled Teens and the Juvenile Justice System in Portland” (4 pm Sunday, Feb. 3).

Tempered, sure, but “Speedoo” and doo-wop are pretty infectious. Maybe we look at Devon a little differently than we did 18 months ago, a little more closely, but the first astonishing scene still works the same way. A teenager fumbles through an extremely typical conversation with his father, fits and starts, lots of “nothing” and “I don’t know” and “never mind”, which the father endures, even reaching out a little, sharing a story or two from his own life, when maybe he did some things he wishes he hadn’t. But the tale that Devon tells isn’t an ordinary story of club of boys getting together in private to smoke a few cigarettes and share a beer among the six of them. All of this is handles so deftly by long, we recognize it immediately and even sense the dark direction things are headed.

But that’s not the astonishing part. That comes at the end of the scene, another bloody deed done, when Devon launches into “Speedoo,” backed by Gavin Gregory, Jared Miller and Michael O’Connell (all of whom play multiple roles in the play), and Dean Linnard changes from an insatiable grub into a divine doo-wop butterfly. The beat, the close harmony, Linnard’s youthful tenor lifted in a mild version of the traditional boasting song! (This is about the limit of the boasting: “Well, they often call me Speedoo/ ‘Cause I don’t believe in wastin’ time/ Well, I’m known some pretty women/ And that’s caused them to change their minds”)

Maybe you’ll be humming it, too.

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Crystal Munoz doesn't  sense the tiger in Dean Linnard./Brud Giles

Crystal Muñoz doesn’t sense the tiger in Dean Linnard./Brud Giles

The pattern of this scene is repeated several times in the play, a crucial transition from “drama” to “music” that was smoothly handled each time by director Kathleen Dimmick.  Devon is interviewed by the police, a hitchhiker, a girlfriend, the girlfriend’s father. He’s tongue-tied, reluctant, eyes darting away from his interlocutor. He reaches some inner point of no return. He pulls out a machete. And then he breaks into song!

Do we get closer to him through these episodes? Not really, I don’t think. It’s a cycle, a merry-go-round, not a helix that will left our understanding of Devon beyond two dimensions or a Yeats gyre that will sink us. Another poet, William Blake, has considered this:

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

Maybe we are always wondering about the tigers in our midst: “Did He who made the lamb make thee?” Of course, we’ve long learned how to destroy real tigers; it’s those humans tigers, armed beyond the teeth, that confound us now.

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I don’t want to stretch this metaphor too far. Devon’s not a tiger nor a kid. He’s Long’s invention, a strange one that resembles real boys at times and tigers at others, sure, but one that follows a logic invented and then pursued by Long. And fortunately for us, that logic includes a little transcendent doo-wop that actually does lift us out of the cycle.

In addition to Gregory, Miller and O’Connell, who form Linnard’s back-up group, and play Devon’s father, the detective, and assorted other roles, we also get to hear from Crystal Muñoz and Sharonlee McLean, who play girlfriend, mother and, yes, assorted other roles, and also get to join in that singing. Did I mention that it’s infectious that sound, and that maybe you’ll be humming it, too? Yes, I think I did.

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