Review: Roadkill Confidential (Dog and Pony Theatre)

  
  

Video work adds little to self-indulgent, tedious concoction

  
  

L to R: Melanie (Heather Townsend) stumbles into Trevor's (Lucy Carapetyan) studio in the woods in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of Roadkill Confidential May 4-June 4 at The Building Stage. Photo by Timmy Samuel.

   
Dog and Pony Theatre Company presents
   
Roadkill Confidential
   
Written by Sheila Callaghan
Directed by Devon DeMayo
at The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter (map)
through June 4  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Dog and Pony’s Roadkill Confidential just might be the weirdest amalgamation of pretentious meaninglessness we’ve encountered on a stage. Ever. Despite what the various program notes would have you believe, playwright Sheila Callaghan’s work is neither bold nor invigorating. It is simply a tedious barrage of grainy, often visually indecipherable video footage looming over a messy and ultimately pointless pastiche of verbal non-sequiturs and bizarre, modern dance-like interludes that seem to have no connection with the rest of the production.

FBI Man (Sorin Brouwers) and Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan) perform the "We Sense Each Other Dance" in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of Roadkill Confidential by Sheila Callaghan. Photo Timmy Samuel In its sporadic moments of quasi-lucidity, Roadkill Confidential seems to be attempting some sort of satircal commentary on the everyday violence that consumes the world at large and/or humankind’s increasingly numb reaction to said violence. But the production comes across more confused than satirical. The video footage isn’t the only element of the production that’s mostly unintelligible. Roadkill Confidential also lacks a coherent narrative. Finally, director Devon De Mayo seems unconcerned with connecting the audience on any level whatsoever. The drama lurches along from one outlandish scene to the next without offering a single moment of emotional truth for the audience to latch on to.

Obviously, a traditional narrative and conventionally empathetic characters aren’t necessary for a play to work. From Ionesco to Beckett to Brecht and beyond, theater of the absurd and alienation can resonate with formidable power. But Callaghan’s absurdity seems to stand for nothing beyond its own self-indulgence.

The story, such as it is, centers on Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan), a churlish artist who specializes in creating sculptures made from roadkill. As charactere go, Trevor is two-dimensional, running the emotional gamut from A to B, or rather, from bitchy to bitchier. She is prone, as are the others on stage, to sudden outbreaks of stylized movement – rhythmic gyrations portrayed with an angst-ridden, dead seriousness but that read more like a parody of modern dance.

Trevor is being tracked by a one-eyed fellow known only as FBI Man (Sorin Brouwers), who believes the artist may be using her sculptures as weapons of germ-warfare. In between FBI Man’s rambling ruminations on high-tech surveillance gadgets and his own unflagging patriotism, Callaghan introduces Trevor’s tweedy partner William (Dan Smith), her seemingly brain-damaged stepson Randy (Andrew Goetten), and the fractured family’s uber-perky, socially clueless neighbor Melanie (Heather Townsend).

     
FBI Man (Sorin Brouwers) pauses dinner between Randy (Andrew Goetten), Melanie (Heather Townsend), and Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan) to share surveillance equipment in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of "Roadkill Confidential" by Sheila Callaghan. Photo Timmy Samuel Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan on screen) interrupts FBI Man's (Sorin Brouwers) surveillance in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of "Roadkill Confidential" by Sheila Callaghan. Photo Timmy Samuel

Among the five of them, there’s not a note of authenticity or a single moment that generates anything akin to empathy. What drives Trevor’s surly fascination with dead animals is anybody’s guess. As is the genesis of Randy’s bizarre obsession with cutlery. Combine the disconnected interludes of surreal, Isadora Duncan-on-absinthe undulations with the dearth of relatable humanity with video footage so muddy it looks like abstract art and you’ve got a show offers audiences very little incentive to stay interested.

Although to be sure, there is one video segment that clearly captures something recognizable, and recognizably part of the story: It is footage of a dog chained to a wall and left to starve as part of a gallery exhibit. It’s safe to assume no animals were actually harmed in the creation of Roadkill Confidential. Even so, the images of the purportedly starving mutt seem utterly gratuitous in their cruelty, an ugly, manipulative attempt by the playwright to be shocking. Equally ugly: A scene wherein Trevor, hands dripping with blood, wields a knife over a squirming, barely living squirrel (or something) and tells the struggling creature that she’s about to inflict pain that’ll hurt plike a “motherfucker.” Call me overly sensitive, but I see nothing worthwhile about watching small animals tortured to death, even when it’s only pretend.

As for Trevor’s final art project, it’s so beyond the pale as to beggar description. But just when you think Roadkill Confidential couldn’t get anymore pointlessly strange or manipulative in its attempts to be edgy and innovative, Callaghan introduces a musical number involving another dying creature Trevor has drafted into her artwork.

Successful plays don’t need likeable characters or traditional plots. It is quite possible to fuse traditional dramatic action with dance and video and come up with a compelling multi-disciplinary artistic hybrid. But Roadkill Confidential, in its strenuous attempts to be push the envelope of edginess and provocation, only succeeds in being tedious. It’s not innovative so much as it is inane. And in the end, uninteresting.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

L to R: Randy (Andrew Goetten), Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan on table) and William (Dan Smith) flashback to fame time in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of "Roadkill Confidential" by Sheila Callaghan. Photo: Timmy Samuel

Roadkill Confidential continues through June 4, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for students and seniors. All previews plus Thursday and Sunday performances are pay-what-you-can. For tickets, call The Building Stage box office at 312-491-1369 or visit www.dogandponychicago.org.     (All photos by Timmy Samuel)

     

     
     

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REVIEW: Eclipse Theatre’s “Democracy”

Democracy Is a “Lite” and Casual Affair

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Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow.  –Abraham Lincoln, 1864

Eclipse Theatre presents:

Democracy

adapted by Romulus Linney
directed by Steven Fedoruk
thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Lincoln saw it all coming, but could he have anticipated an America as rife with corruption as it was under his leading general? Henry Adams’ novel, Democracy, which forms one half of Romulus Linney’s adaptation, (the second being Adam’s novel, Esther, based on his wife) came from the disillusionment Adams experienced under Ulysses S. Grant’s administration. Idealistic and eager for reform, Adams pinned great hopes upon the rough, honest and honorable military man.

Democracy05 Disillusionment followed hard and fast upon Grant’s 1868 election—September 24, 1869 saw the dawn of Black Friday, a panic brought about by James Fisk and Jay Gould’s attempts to corner the gold market, as well as the severe misjudgments of Grant and his Secretary of Treasury George Boutwell to stop them. Investigation revealed the involvement of the President’s brother-in-law, Abel Rathbone Corbin, but Grant’s association with Gould alone would have brought the scandal right to the door of the White House. In a prominent English journal, Henry Adams anonymously published an article on the scandal, hoping it would be picked up and reprinted often in the American press. It was, but Fisk and Gould never faced prosecution. The crash of Black Friday crippled the American economy for years afterward.

The most corruption Linney’s play touches on is the Whiskey Ring, involving Grant’s appointee General John H. McDonald and Grant’s own private secretary Orville E. Babcock. Even here, Linney only satirizes Grant’s alcoholism and his expurgated testimony. The play doesn’t mention that Grant fired special prosecutor John B. Henderson when he denied Grant’s wishes to hold Babcock’s trial in military court. Grant’s replacement, James Broadhead, not only allowed Babcock to be acquitted but also closed out all the other cases involved.

Material that could provide for four or five satires goes missing from both Adams’ novel and Linney’s adaptation. It becomes quite clear that we are dealing with American History Lite. But what Adams would not bring up out of a sense of delicacy or fear of reprisal, Linney most likely avoids out of our culture’s collective ignorance. If lite is the only way we can take it, all the worse for us, since forgetfulness like that can only leave us wandering in a fantasy theme park of a country–as make-believe as the fictions surrounding George Washington of which old Mrs. Dudley (Barbara Roeder Harris) disabuses the other characters on their day trip to Mt. Vernon.

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Who knows how much anyone is paying attention–since Senator Silas Raitcliffe (Jon Steinhagen) is wooing the recently arrived, beautiful young widow, Mrs. Lee (Rebecca Prescott), and young Episcopal minister Reverend Hazard (Stephen Dale) is in hot pursuit of Mrs. Dudley’s daringly bohemian niece, Esther Dudley (Nina O’Keefe). Director Steven Fedoruk keeps things light at Eclipse Theatre’s upstairs studio and focuses mainly on “who’s zoomin’ who.” He’s assembled an excellent cast in that case, able to handle the unevenness with which Linney has cobbled together Adams’ two novels.

The greater burden may be in portraying the younger couple–given their issues with mortality and proving improvable faith. Linney’s writing also doesn’t provide much in the way of romance for O’Keefe and Dale to connect with. But both actors do maintain the control needed to make their characters’ religious disputes personal and to temper the material’s overweening histrionics.

Democracy07 Linney’s adaptation allows the rest of the cast far more fun. Diplomat Baron Jacobi (Larry Baldacci), lobbyist Mrs. Baker (Cheri Chenoweth), and Mrs. Dudley are a hoot, as we say out here beyond the Beltway. Ron Butts and Sandy Spatz make an amusingly backwoods Mr. and Mrs. President, although why Butts doesn’t push Grant’s alcoholism further is anyone’s guess.

Sen. Raitcliffe and Mrs. Lee explore and expound their passions for politics as much as for each other. They form an arguably perfect pair, since each may be as ethically compromised as the other. Steinhagen, who recently played Judge Brack with sinister sophistication in Raven Theatre’s Hedda Gabler, throws out villainy for the blinkered guilelessness that Henry Adams wrote for the novel’s character—a man who regards “virtue and vice as a man who is color-blind talks about red and green.”

Why neither novel nor play delve much into Mrs. Lee’s ethical colorblindness remains a conundrum, since Raitcliffe throwing away millions of votes makes for less of a wake-up call than Raitcliffe receiving a bribe for his party. Could Mrs. Lee be the quintessential American—less likely to grasp political transgressions, but more able to understand the personal ones, like an errant blowjob or two? As Raitcliffe declaims during one of Mrs. Lee’s parties, politics in a democracy can only be as pure and honest as the people it comes from. A little more sophistication on the part of the American people couldn’t hurt either. A sucker may be born every minute, as another 19th century figure was fond of saying, but we should at least try to have the next generation of suckers be smarter than the last.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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