Saturday, March 24, 2012

Getting beyond narcissism at Heart and Dagger

It looks like more fun than it really is.

After enduring Next to Narcissism - oops, I meant Next to Normal! - at SpeakEasy Stage, I was in the mood (altered or otherwise) for a good production of Crave, playwright Sarah Kane's primal scream from the bottom of the well of her notorious psychological torment (the playwright committed suicide after scratching out only a handful of ever-more-disturbing plays). I admit Crave is definitely not a good time - but it's authentic; you can hear in it the voice of a soul rather than a shill; unlike Next to Normal, it's not unhappy-housewife bait, much less some shrink-wrapped tablet of theatrical psychopharmacology.  Crave is for those who crave, as they say, "the real thing."

And I got at least a taste of it, if not a full dose, in this production from Heart and Dagger, which I caught at the end of its run last weekend.  It was paired with a new work, Beyond the Light, by an old buddy of mine, Joey Pelletier; which aimed to, as H&D's web site puts it, "crash the party with abstract dance theater."  Hmmm.  "Abstract dance theater." Okay, I kind of get what Joey and H&D are all about - if Oberon wasn't run by evil people, it would be a lot like Heart & Dagger - but I'm not sure I get what they mean (or rather I'm not sure that they get what they mean) by "abstract dance theater."  In practice, at least in Beyond the Light, this seemed to add up to - "Some scenes are going to be dialogue-based, and others are going to be dance-based, and don't ask us why, okay?"

And actually, that's mostly okay - I mean, I never argue with young people in their underwear, and if Heart and Dagger sounds kind of pretentious, trust me, somehow they're really not.  And I do want to say to all the Hearts and Daggers - you definitely look super sexy and dangerous, and I'm totally jealous!!  Whether or not Beyond the Light truly limned the depths of its topic - a junkie/hustler's near-death experience (actually, maybe he died, I'm not completely sure) . . . well, is that really so important, all things considered?  Joey - who wrote as well as directed - has a talent for dialogue (I've seen his other work); and judging from this, he has some choreographic chops, too.  The chief problem with Beyond, it seemed, was that its various bits and pieces didn't seem to hang together, and sometimes H&D's sense of sexual camp undermined the supposed "edge" of the material.  Another problem loomed in the production's lead; hunky Jesse Wood is certainly easy on the eyes, and definitely has some talent - but he only lights up when he's got frisky physical business to execute; he's obviously a happy, healthy dude goofing around with his weird friends in their fishnets rather than some junkie circling the drain.

Oh, well.  Crave at first looked as if it might prove more coherent - director Melanie Garber had a few staging tricks up her sleeve which helped tie together the play's fractured narrative (like its author's psyche, the very text of Crave is shattered into shards).  Chief among these was the clever gambit by which the script's various "voices" tore bandages off a central figure (an appropriately tormented Abigal Matzeder), exposing more and more psychological "nakedness" as the play progressed.  But alas, the success of Crave depends on capturing a certain psychological tone - a mix of yearning and self-disgust, perhaps even self-hatred - that's all but unique in dramatic literature; the "protagonist" of Crave is so far gone from mistreatment and insecurity that she has learned to crave even abuse (at least it's human contact).  And I'm afraid of Garber's quartet of performers, only Michael Underhill was able to maintain this disturbing emotional valence.  Mr. Underhill was last seen cavorting convincingly in Humpty Dumpty at Imaginary Beasts; that kind of range leaves the inevitable impression that he is one of the young actors to watch on Boston's fringe.

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