Sometimes I will read a great book, or see a great play, and wait in excited expectation for the author’s next work. That was my feeling when I attended the District Theatre’s May 13 production of A Behanding in Spokane.
Its author is Martin McDonagh, whose previous script for The Pillowman blew me away – even though McDonagh is certainly not to everyone’s liking. He stated in a 2001 interview in The Guardian that he himself doesn’t like many plays and that his influences are Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone, along with the music of the Sex Pistols and Nirvana. Hence, his works are dark and raw, borrowing heavily from the theatre of the absurd, and I found Pillowman unnerving, inventive, scary, and thought-provoking. I sat in anticipation, on Friday, of another evening of edgy stage entertainment.
Director Mike Turczynski’s squalid-hotel-room set design created the perfect mood of gloom and eeriness with its drab blue walls, rusty radiator, and bed which could have given birth to the phrase “flea-bag.” And as the first character entered the stage and sat silently on the bed, I prepared myself for a foray into the dangerous and funny world of Martin McDonagh. But the evening presented some challenges.
For one thing, I struggled to hear the dialogue clearly. The nuances of the language and droll humor were sometimes lost as the last words of sentences were dropped or the articulation was weak. Since this play is character-driven, understanding the dialogue is imperative in order for the audience to “get the joke,” and my hope is that the lost words were due to opening-night jitters and this issue was subsequently remedied. But I must say that Behanding also does not boast McDonagh's strongest writing, which added even more pressure on the actors to carry the piece. McDonagh is known for injecting his scripts with such shocking brutality that they implore us to think of the reality of violence and its effect on our humanity. This script, however, is almost sentimental, and doesn't have nearly the same jarring social commentary.
Yet the play does have an intriguing premise, in which a man who had his hand severed as a child – and has spent the past 27 years searching for it – is willing to pay $500 to a couple of inept, pot-dealer con artists who claim to have the hand. Their meeting in a dingy hotel room sets the scene for the sometimes grim, sometimes funny, and always absurd interactions between the three. Throw in the interruptions of a nosy hotel clerk, some sadistic revenge, lots of F-bombs and racial epithets, and a suitcase full of surprises, and you have the makings for a crazy, enjoyably irrational theatre experience.
As the hand-less Carmichael, Brant Peitersen presented his lunatic character with a sense of mystery that had me wondering, “What is really going on with this guy?” His character is crazy, vindictive, dangerous, sadistic, and a loner … but he does regularly call his mother, as any good son does, and this illogical act is part of the dark humor that runs throughout the play. The ludicrous, sense-deprived con artists are played by Jordan McGinnis and Olivia Lyman, and the sprinkling of bad grammar into their dialogue was not sufficient to make me believe how incredibly stupid these two characters were supposed to be. I wanted them to act dumber. As far as looking the part, McGinnis, in his Bermuda shorts and tee, also looked too preppy. Scenes in which he cries in fear would have been more comically effective if he were dressed as a tough, street-thug drug dealer, instead of looking like a Malibu Ken doll. But I had to remind myself that in absurdist theatre, logic is thrown out the window, so maybe his attire was intentional.
For me, Behanding's most fascinating comic character was Mervyn, played by Aaron Lord. As the fast-talking, Brooklyn-accented hotel clerk, Lord held my attention and curiosity with his portrayal of the “dumb like a fox” interloper. Is he really so clueless that he'll be at the front desk in his underwear, and instead of calling the police when he hears a gunshot, he'll go to the room to investigate himself? Or does he know something the other characters don't? True to the show's absurdist nature, Mervyn also calmly and chillingly delivers a strange monologue directly to the audience, one that reveals his fascination with a zoo monkey and his dreams of being a hero, and in doing so, Lord brings a sense of humanity to this buffoonish clerk.
This play of ill-fated individuals – the psychotic, the stupid, and the weak – could be about many themes, trapped as its characters are in an inconceivable situation, and subject to illogical happenings and outcomes. Is this play about revenge? Is the loss of a hand symbolic of the loss of innocence and trust? Is the core of the play about the loss of one’s life to a meaningless quest? These questions remained with me for days, and made me think there was perhaps a much deeper meaning to this play than its surface of illogical craziness. It's for you to decide if you attend A Behanding in Spokane.
A Behanding in Spokane runs at the District Theatre (1724 Fourth Avenue, Rock Island) through May 21, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)781-5972 or visiting DistrictTheatre.com.