matthew kern

The fragile ghosts of drama past

The premiere of DC Copeland's "The Undiscovered Country" at Defunkt goes vividly into that good night

The ghost of Bertie Brecht wanders the stage of Defunkt Theatre in the premiere of The Undiscovered Country, DC Copeland’s new play about love and pain and the whole damned thing among the addicted and emotionally unmoored seekers of a big American city. Matthew Kern, as a lonely drug dealer named Terry (or, professionally, “Bear”), announces to the audience right at the top that what’s about to happen isn’t reality, it’s a play, and then gives away a few plot points before anything’s happened, and invites anyone who’s uncomfortable about the subject matter to exit the theater, no questions asked. (Of course, nobody does: that deck’s just a little stacked.) All in all, diabolically dialectical.

Sher and Conway: love hurts. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Sher and Conway: love hurts. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Other ghosts are wandering about, too, some of them actual characters in the play. And certainly the shades of Billy Shakespeare and his gloomy Danish prince are crashing the party: Copeland’s title, after all, comes from Hamlet’s lament about the weariness of life, which surely no one would put up with except for “the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” The people in Copeland’s play are continually contemplating that ultimate question, to be or not to be. They fear it, and they love it. It consumes them.

Lingering in the lines like a ghost in the machine is some of the fateful anguish of the musical Rent, Jonathan Larson’s Bohème-in-modern-Manhattan. And, just a little under the surface, I spy the spectre of Chris Marlowe and The Jew of Malta, with its black heart and curdled damn-the-consequences doom: “Thou hast committed fornication: but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.”

In other words: If you’re looking for a night of laughs, keep looking. There is heat on this stage, but it’s a bleak heat, desperate and about to burn out. So you find yourself, if you buy into the play’s closed universe, taking pleasure in the increasingly dire straits the characters place themselves in, and that’s a bit uncomfortable, forcing you outside the action as you dive deeper into it: Brecht’s dialectic in action. The Undiscovered Country has some of the fevered propulsion of revenge tragedy, and the same propensity for melodrama. It’s as if these lost characters in the naked city are caught in a cycle of hopeless fate: no escape.

In a bracingly stripped-down space (smart set by Max Ward, lighting by Peter West, costumes [which take a bit of rumpling] by Annie Ganousis, sound by Andrew Klaus-Vineyard) Copeland & Company dig deeply and fiercely into the action, which involves pill-popping, heavy breathing both straight and gay, a fatal attraction to a weapon or two, and a mournful sense of disconnection, of characters wanting to love but not knowing how. Drugs and other obsessions that spur the action and the downward spiral are displacements in this universe, attempts to plug gaps that just keep getting wider and deeper. Director Paul Angelo creates a fine rhythm out of all of this, taking his time to dig into the moments but never letting the thing lag.

Modica and Kern: cross-purposes. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Modica and Kern: cross-purposes. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Everyone but Kern doubles up on roles, playing characters who are distinct yet swimming in the same dangerous pool. He’s joined by Lauren Modica, in yet another densely focused performance, as a woman reeling after her lover’s death; and Spencer Conway as a guilt-wracked hunk; and newcomer Lynn Sher as a couple of doomed souls taking refuge in drugs and sex (in one role, speaking of ghosts, she’s an actress playing Ophelia to Conway’s Hamlet). A good deal of the show’s pleasure comes from watching these fierce, sometimes funny, sometimes aching performances, which can leave you exasperated (how can their characters do this stuff?) without losing empathy. Sher sometimes slips inside these uncomfortable shoes with such an addled absorption that her voice becomes something like Ophelia’s in her mad-song, a slur of words that almost lose their shape.

In the end, Copeland’s play seems something like an emotional group snapshot, with no sense of direction other than down. You don’t know how these characters got to this place in their lives, or how they found one another (except for some recovery programs), or even why they seem to feel there is no future. That’s just the way it is: a mystery. After all, the country’s undiscovered. At least, for now.

*

Defunkt’s world premiere of The Undiscovered Country continues through June 20 in the Backdoor Theatre, behind Common Grounds Coffeehouse, 4321 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. Schedule and ticket information are here.

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Love and Mao in the miracle days

Defunkt's 'Hundred Flowers' finds romantic comedy and complications as a plague floats away

Let a hundred flowers bloom, Chairman Mao said.

We have nothing to fear but fear itself, Franklin D. Roosevelt said.

Don’t trust the flowers. They might be snakes, waiting to bite you on the butt, Puppy said.

 

Bray and Kern: best friends. Photo: Heather Keeling

Bray and Kern: best friends. Photo: Heather Keeling

Maybe you’re not familiar with the wit and wisdom of the people’s philosopher Puppy. He’s a smart-talking paraplegic author of gay Marxist porn, the unlikely and clingingly adorable central character in David Zellnik’s equally unlikely and charming post-AIDS romantic comedy Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, which is getting a winsome, sexy, and emotionally perceptive performance at defunkt theatre. A wheelchair-bound Matthew Kern, wheedling and wisecracking and alternately acting the wise guy and the yearning fool, becomes the fulcrum of the tale, which is about what happens when you’ve been living under a death sentence and it’s suddenly lifted.

Strictly speaking, Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom isn’t a post-AIDS play, because AIDS and HIV are still with us. But they’re vastly different from what they once were, and Zellnik’s play is set at the dawning of what seemed at the time an almost unbelievable new age. It takes place in the mid-1990s, when protease inhibitors began to tame the effects of HIV and suddenly offered a new lease on life to millions of people who had been facing almost certain wasting-away and premature death. In gay communities, it was a giddy and almost magical time, and maybe even a little fearful: Where do we go? What do we do?

Puppy, for one, is hopeful but wary. Better the devil you know, perhaps, and he sees in the promise of HIV drugs an ironic connection to Chairman Mao’s “hundred flowers” campaign. In 1956, the same year that the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Uprising, Mao seemed to take an opposite, more benevolent, tack in China. “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” he proclaimed: let a multitude of ideas loose to contend in an open intellectual and political market.

For a while, Chinese citizens took him up on his offer. Then Mao cracked down, arresting dissidents who had spoken out and sending many of them to forced labor camps. As he later bragged, he had “enticed the snakes out of their caves.”

The snakes in Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom seem mainly in the mind, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. The play’s romance strikes off in several directions, but centers on the partnership of Jake (Andrew Bray) and Samson (Steve Vanderzee), who had been resigned to dying together but now, thanks to drug treatment, are becoming healthy again. The trouble is, Samson has some troublesome side effects and spends a lot of time on the road; and Jake’s in a torpor, semi-paralyzed emotionally and unable to get up and do much of anything: he still can’t quite believe he’s not dying. Add Chip Sherman to the mix in several roles – most notably as a sexy shoe salesman who insists he’s straight but likes to fool around with guys – and the action becomes desperate, funny, and surprisingly moving. Protease inhibitors might be miracle drugs, but they’re not miracle workers. When you come back to life, you also come back to its many complications.

Zellnik wrote A Hundred Flowers in 2001, and even now its setup seems a little daring, a little dancing-on-skeletons, with a smart sense of the complicating fear and pain underlying the liberation. It’s a warm play, ultimately, a feel-good sort of story, but with enough nuance and emotional shadings to give it real impact. The cast’s quite winning, and the talented director Paul Angelo keeps the actors on their toes, nimbly navigating the rapids of sentiment, sheer comedy, sly raunch, and genuine emotion. Nothing to fear but fear itself. And fear has fangs.

 *

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom continues through March 22 at defunkt, in the little Back Door Theatre behind Common Grounds coffee shop at 4319 Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. Ticket and schedule information is here.

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