Monday, May 24, 2010

All in the family

After five years of a bristling existence on Boston's fringe, Whistler in the Dark remains the most daring theatre company in town. In fact, there's no one else even in their league (Harvard and B.U. lag far behind in terms of intellectual challenge, albeit in different directions). Their last show was Naomi Wallace's almost-over-literate diary of a plague year, One Flea Spare. Next season, they're taking on Howard Barker's The Europeans. (Which will make three Barker plays this determined troupe has produced in its short life.) Their idea of a crowd-pleaser is Ovid's Metamorphoses. I repeat: nobody else in town has that kind of balls.

And no doubt our city-wide lack of cojones is behind the fact that the current Whistler project, Family Stories - a surreal, blacker-than-black comedy by Biljana Srbljanovic - counts as the play's local premiere, despite its being penned in 1997. That's right, 13 years ago. Yes, think of that - thirteen years of new play development have filled our local stages with warmth and heart and quirk - not to mention several tons of "uplift." But I can't think of anything that's "developed" that's half as savage as what Srbljanovic calmly serves up here. [Correction! (I've been highly correctable of late, it seems!) I've been informed Family Stories was produced once prior in Boston, eight years ago, by the Market Theatre. Whistler in the Dark still has balls, though.]

The Serbian playwright's conceit is that we're watching children of a warzone play out their "family stories" - violent, brutal fantasies and games that both reflect and refract the destructive adult behaviors they observe around them. The twist is that the children are played by adult actors - yes, adults playing children playing adults - which doesn't so much distance us from their playground horrors as pull them that much closer, while illuminating the childish impulses behind the savagery that inspired them. Not that everything is fun and games - one little girl seems so damaged that she actually believes she's a dog (and is treated as such); her debasement is "real." And the fact that every new day calls for some new sadistic pastime (the parent figures get repeatedly offed in highly creative ways) conjures a powerful sense of the way civil war turns everything - morals, meaning, even time itself - into a repetitive form of chaos.

That said, it must be admitted that the Whistlers don't quite get the tone of the play right: two of the actors - company stalwart Jen O'Connor and newcomer Danny Bryck - capture well the childish affect of their characters. But there's a slightly more ironic, self-aware edge to the work of Melissa Barker and (especially) Nate Gundy that occasionally comes off as arch, and subtly undermines the script with a sense of knowing snark. And director Meg Taintor hasn't found a way to convey the satire of political figures we get the impression the kids are sometimes aping (no doubt Srbljanovic's original Serbian audience picked up on these cues immediately - we don't) . I also felt a real through-line only from O'Connor over the course of the play, which gave the impression that its savagery doesn't progress; which perhaps it doesn't - but it does accrue, and these kids should develop a meta-awareness of their ongoing relationships (and frustrations) with each other outside the confines of their "play."

All that said, much of the action remained almost mysteriously absorbing, and the constant violence, well-designed by Meron Langsner and Mark Villanueva, was always gripping. The set was perhaps too bare-bones - a greater sense of a blasted urban heath was called for, I felt - but in a way this made the text even more strangely free-floating in its ramifications; it was a while, in fact, before I was quite sure what the actors were intended to represent. So let's just say that if you're the type that likes reaching your own conclusions about a play, and you're up for violent confrontation - at least of the theatrical sort - then Whistler in the Dark is for you. Through May 30.