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Last season, Eric Lucas starred in one Sam Shepard play while directing another, and the experience evidently made an impression on him. He has now, for all intents and purposes, written a Sam Shepard play.
A brutal melodrama, Tattoo Sky features the sort of characters who toss beer bottles at walls, flick playing cards on the floor, and fire shotguns at the TV, all as a way of expressing an ennui that would merely be boorish if they weren’t simultaneously riffing with windswept eloquence about barroom brawls and blue-fin tuna fishing.
The tossing, flicking, and firing begins before a word is spoken in the Keegan Theatre’s production, set in a Nevada desert house in which cheap paneling vies with pizza boxes as the reigning design aesthetic. Ray (Mark Rhea), a drunken con artist whose boots and pants are held together with duct tape, is lounging on a filthy open sofa bed, pouring beer on himself, and taking potshots at anything that moves. Shooting the TV strikes him as easier than getting up to change the channel.
Meg (Susan Marie Rhea), a preacher’s daughter who’s been desultorily flicking cards with her eyes glued to the set, finds this annoying, and calls Ray “myopic”—an assertion that prompts an argument over whether the word means “a person from Myopia.” She’s soon fondly remembering the time she stood drunkenly atop a pool table smacking at the ceiling’s fluorescent light tubes with her cue. She describes this event as having her “own private piñata party.”
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These two lovebirds spend most of their time screaming about everything from the barely breathing horse tied up outside (they’re hoping to sell it) to the level of humiliation any one man should be expected to take. “Don’t you ever question my place in this household!” bellows Ray—a demand that would probably be more effective if he weren’t lying on the floor in an inebriated stupor.
A casino’s debt collector, Taylor (Kevin Adams), is on his way over, aiming to raise the evening’s threat level considerably. Ray bears the brunt of the ensuing brutality, eventually finding himself bruised, battered, and hogtied to a saddle
suspended from a wagon-wheel chandelier—the central attraction at what I suppose you’d have to call Taylor’s own private piñata party.
Now, it should be mentioned that much of this is pretty funny. And also that Lucas tarts up his narrative with a few techniques that are not hallmarks of the Shepard canon. Time is quite malleable in Tattoo Sky, for instance. At the end of the first act, long after the TV has theoretically been shotgunned to oblivion, it pops on, indicating either a miracle or a flashback. And when Taylor refers to Meg and Ray blurts out a startled, “You can see her?” it becomes clear—well, not clear, exactly, but evident—that the characters do not always inhabit the same dramatic plane.
That said, there’s nothing terribly complicated about the plot, which involves a swindle gone wrong, a suitcase full of stolen cash, and an identical suitcase covered with blood. Lucas seems less interested in keeping his narrative coherent than in giving his characters poetic soliloquies about dogfights, engaging them in dictionary quizzes, and having them spout vivid descriptions of Latino miscreants (“Gold teeth all matchin’ in with yellow ones”). The play’s title derives from a rambling but captivating speech about an Indian tribe that expects its members to carve “a map of their sins” into their faces.
Give Lucas credit: He writes a mean monologue, and his violence-prone staging finds plenty of ways for the actors to render his speeches vibrantly. But he hasn’t really come up with a rationale for asking an audience to pay attention to what his characters have to say. They’re little more than trashy archetypes—dissolute con man, slatternly girlfriend, leering enforcer—and their fates, though lurid, are only about as compelling as they would be in a supermarket tabloid.
Franz Kafka never visited the United States, but that didn’t keep him from imagining a young man doing so in his picaresque first novel, Amerika. Now, sponsored by the Scena Theatre, Vienna’s Pygmalion Theater has made its own trans-Atlantic excursion with a stage adaptation of the novel that opened this past weekend at the Warehouse Next Door.
The troupe’s method is a sort of Brechtian vaudeville in which émigré Karl Rossman (Ann-Birgit Holler) is repeatedly tricked and bamboozled by a street artist and the other Amerikans he meets, all of them played by Ip Wischin. The stage floor is a huge sheet of paper, on which the street artist draws whatever props are needed with a magic marker. When he invites his new friend to come in, he draws a door on the floor in front of him. When Karl still looks perplexed, Wischin adds a few lines to make it an open door. It’s a cute device, though with repetition it loses appeal.
So does the tale itself, as its Candide-in-Wonderland, innocent-abroad schtick wears thin. In bowler hat and black suit, Holler’s Karl seems decidedly Chaplinesque, but the character sometimes appears befuddled as much by basic human nature as by the new country he finds himself in. Karl’s adventures are unremarkable—he loses his baggage, makes a friend, struggles with the language, gets a job, plays a piano—and stylizing each incident as if it were an improvisational burlesque routine doesn’t make that narrative throughline any more involving than it would be if played straight. Nor does adaptor/actor Wischin’s habit of extending comic bits pretty much indefinitely, as if delay itself were funny. When he stutters through the line “Wha-wha-wha-wha-wha…what’s your name, anyway?” eating up almost 30 seconds with a question that has no particular comic payoff, it’s hard to know wha-wha-what precisely is being mocked.
A bit with a squeaky valise handle is similarly attenuated. The national anthem is sung not once, but several times. And a course of action is said to be “forbidden, not allowed, absolutely verboten, and prohibited,” proving mostly that somebody had access to a thesaurus.
Which is not to suggest that the evening will be without interest for Kafka fans. In mood and style, it offers a much lighter portrait of its author’s dyspeptic worldview than, say, Metamorphosis, which has been adapted more frequently to the stage. And while there’s obviously an awkward aspect to hatching a show in Vienna that purports to explore the Amerikan experience, if ever there was a moment when audiences could use a dispassionate view of how the nation is perceived abroad, this is certainly it. Just go forewarned that the view on offer is more cute than confrontational. CP