- This Place is a Desert
"We can talk about love and all the ways it wraps itself around us until it's just another form of suffocation," cries one of the many characters caught up in the pains and pangs of Jay Scheib's This Place is a Desert. And that's exactly what happens: a series of tight and interconnected rooms give way to a tangled snarl of relationships that overlap and clash like human hurricanes. Furthermore, a series of cameras and a passive observer (Kenneth Roraback) air the real time scenes from multiple angles, catching each character's reactions like windows to the soul, a creative use of multimedia that allows for poetic, image-heavy transitions.
As the men and women fling wildly from partner to partner, the locations become just as interchangeable, with borders as porous as the chambers of the heart. A large tan bedroom, with an illusory mirror wall, serves as the home for the couples: Jeanette and Marcello, Mr. and Mrs. Rowe, and Jim and Monica. A pale blue hallway provides the path for all the additional romances -- between Marcello and Victorovna, Monica and Richard Harris -- as does a dark red room that serves both as a place for Jeanette and Mr. Rowe, and as an orgiastic guest room.
The play does a fairly good job of depicting what happens to relationships that outlast the love, and the lingering gaze of the camera, always watching for just a little too long, helps to cement that effect. Unfortunately, the cinematic elements hollow out the stage action (which could be called a metaphor for love, but a dissatisfying excuse, if that), and after mechanical blocking, melodramatic lines delivered to the camera, and a body poetics that is anything but natural, it becomes hard to take some of the actors seriously. Caleb Hammond, for instance, would make a fantastic, egocentric drunk as Mr. Rowe, if he hadn't already played the deathbed flirtations of Bill Faulkner the same way.
Luckily, the play ends on exactly the right note, the pinnacle of anti-romance and modern love: Victornovna (the fantastic Aimee Phelan-Deconinck) pleads with Marcello (Jorge Albert Rubio, who grows more and more into the role as the show continues): "Please. Please, say you don't love me." "No," he replies, digging into her, the two burying, suffocating their heads within each other's bodies. "No. I won't say it."
- In Spite of Everything
In Spite of Everything is the best use of spoken word that I've seen in a play yet; an urban yet arty mix of Laramie-like exploration and poetic imagination that divorces itself from reality even as it plunges itself back in, deeper, through brilliant metaphor. Only The Suicide Kings (Rupert Estanislao, Jaime DeWolf, and Geoff Trenchard) know how much of their story is true, but it hardly matters: whether it's a poem about getting fed up in the service industry, dealing with acne, or watching Columbine in reverse, there isn't a verse that isn't relevant, not a thought that someone in the audience won't agree with.
The play opens with The Suicide Kings introducing themselves to an ordinary class in an ordinary American town and then launching into a writer's workshop called "I feel a scream coming in." Unfortunately for them, the next day, 27 kids are dead, and detectives, having found a journal at the scene of the crime, are breathing down Rupert, Jamie, and Geoff's necks, demanding to know what they said to the kid that might have finally made him snap. As they alternate roles between their own self-effacing, honest poetry for the "classroom," as detectives grilling members of the group, or simply giving testimony from the killer's friend, father, and classmates, they are pursued by Sam Bass's slashes of the cello, a musical drive that demands that the void to be filled with words.
And fill it, they do. Segments from their past (fact or fiction?) show us Rupert's initiation into an Asian sect of the Crypts, Jaime as a bullied and Goth-like teenager, and Geoff as a once-violent child, and for all of them, their escape is through the language that gave them a second chance. The show vibrates with these lively verses, poetry that ignores barriers of form or canonized style to take back a disenfranchised street grammar, and the play hums with such powerful lines that I'd have to quote the whole script to do it justice. Grab your pen and paper, or razor and wrist, whatever your medium (their line, not mine), and see In Spite of Everything, for it wasn't talking that made this fictional kid snap; it was his silence.