Saturday, February 24, 2007

Red Light Winter

Disturbing, unnerving ‘RED LIGHT WINTER’ at Bang and Clatter

Akron’s off-off Broadway theatre, THE BANG AND THE CLATTER, is presenting Adam Rapp’s controversial play, ‘RED LIGHT WINTER.’ This show is not for the feint of heart. It’s not for those who can’t tolerate full-frontal nudity, gross language, depiction of graphic sex, or don’t like to have their senses assaulted.

To be honest, I don't like the script, but I can't and won't deny that the raw smells, tastes and visions got into my senses and won’t get out. I don’t like the people. I don’t like what they represent. I don’t like that they can’t and or won’t save themselves from their destructive paths. Yet, I can’t get them out of my mind.

The name Adam Rapp may sound familiar, even if you aren’t a theatre person. A novelist, film maker and playwright, his book ‘THE BUFFALO TREE’ was brought to national attention when it was censored by the Muhlenberg School Board in Reading, Pennsylvania for its language and subject matter.

Rapp uses graphic language, sexual content and themes that are repulsive to some. Personally, I’m not shocked or turned off by his language or subject matter. But I am turned off by his style. I just think he writes speeches which don’t sound like they would be spoken by a normal person, writes characters that are overdrawn, and puts shock before substance. I find that he throws in gimmicks to move along the plot that often make no sense.

‘RED LIGHT WINTER’ begins in a small bedroom in a hostel in Amsterdam, where nerdy, unsuccessful playwright Matt attempts to kill himself. Right after his half hearted attempt fails, his traveling mate Davis turns up. The two are friends from college and are vacationing together in Europe. Davis has a present for Matt—a prostitute named Christina.

Christina appears to be French but, as Matt deduces, is actually an American. She undresses Matt, takes him to bed, then she exits, leaving behind a tape recorder and the fancy red dress she changed into just before bedding the somewhat shy and inexperienced young man.

Act Two takes place in New York, in Matt's apartment. If any more of the plot is revealed the effect of the evening will be ruined, so I’m stopping here with just the comment that the play has no curtain call and that is one of the dramatic highlights of the evening.

Okay, here are my issues with Rapp and his script. Yes, opposites may attract and people turn to those who are unlike themselves in order to get some thrills. But, that obsessive-compulsive insecure Matt would be friends with Davis, who has no redeeming qualities, is questionable. As written, Davis wouldn’t be an actual friend to anyone, least of all Matt, whose girl friend Davis stole some years back. As for Christina, she's something of an enigma throughout. At first I thought that it was the fault of Laurel Johnson, who plays the role. She has a bad French accent, is a weak singer, and her lines often lack unity of thought. Nope, it’s not Laurel’s fault. The character is poorly and manipulatively drawn by Rapp. Her language and lines don’t ring true. Questions abound: Why the false French accent? Why does she leave her dress and the tape recorder behind? Of all the people in the world, why does she seek out a scumbag like Davis when she comes to New York? The answer is that these are all plot development devices.

What is surprising is that ‘RED LIGHT WINTER’ was one of the finalist for last year’s Pulitzer Prize. With the quality of this script, no wonder no award was given.

As they are apt to do, the Bang and Clatter gives the play a good production. In fact, the production, outclasses the material, though trimming the first act (one hour and thirty minutes was way too long) and picking up the pace in the second act, would have helped.

Doug Kusak is generally on target as Matt. He probably has the clearest of the characters to interpret, even with the question of his loyalty to Davis. I found his interpretation of the closing scene a little unclear, but otherwise, it was a good acting exercise.

Mark Mayo knows no boundaries as Davis. He is way, way over-the-top. It can only be assumed that Director Sean McConaha really, really wanted us to hate Davis. He succeeded. I wonder what would have happened if Mayo had pulled back the character a little. If he had not screamed almost every line, over-acted ever gross action and syllable that spewed forth from his mouth.

The second act confrontation scene between Davis and Christina was so finely tuned it was pure emotional agony. It was almost unwatchable because of the uncompromising reality of the performers.

Gorgeous Laurel Johnson does what she can with the poorly written role of Christina/Christine/ Annie. Her physical change between the first and second acts is amazing. She perfectly transforms into a Keene painting of a hollow-eyed child looking at finality.

Capsule judgement: ‘RED LIGHT WINTER’ has to be one of the, if not the most disturbing productions I’ve ever seen. I’m writing this 24 hours after having seen the show and I’m still in a state of shock!