Sunday, June 30, 2013

Expressionist Gothic


Alligator Summer: A southern gothic atrocity in three acts
by Dylan Lamb
from Squeaky Bicycle Productions
directed by Brandi Varnell
set design by Kathryn Lieber
lighting design by Christopher D’Angelo
with:
Nicholas Yenson
Mark A. Keeton

Annalisa Loeffler
Dylan Lamb
Jackie Krim
Nathan Brisby
Erin E. McGuff

 
Squeaky Bicycle Productions has been presenting a superb production of Dylan Lamb’s excellent new play Alligator Summer. It’s a rare amalgam of first rate work from all artists involved.

Alligator Summer is subtitled A southern gothic atrocity in three acts; it’s indeed in the vein epitomized by Albee’s The Ballad of the Sad CafĂ©. And it’s firmly in the expressionist tradition. The situation concerns two families holed up in an attic because the alligators have overrun the streets.

Here in the garret, Atticus Julep is the Julep pater familias. His wife has been in bed for 13 years – that is, since the birth of their son, Antietam (also in residence). They’re joined mid-play by the older son, Toby, a decidedly bad example for the young boy.

They’re joined in this tight space, overheated thermodynamically and emotionally, by the Gettysburg family. Bundle Gettysburg is a dumb, astoundingly good-natured lug. His wife, EthelynnAnn is Julep’s mistress.

Antebellum Gettysburg, their daughter, is a girl Antietam’s age with either mental retardation or psychosis – it’s unclear which. Her father complains that she’s jabbering nonsense, but the actress (whose performance is otherwise very good) speaks so quickly that we don’t know which condition applies. We don’t even know if we’re supposed to understand all of what she’s saying.

However, during the play Antebellum’s parents get at her and she ends up undoubtedly with both mental retardation and psychosis. We still can’t understand what she’s saying but at this point we’re certainly not supposed to.

13-year-old Antietam, gay and abused, is the focus. This is a memory play, and he breaks the action from time to time to address us as his older self. Nicholas Yenson gives a terrific performance as a boy so maltreated that we can see he’ll never recover. Oh, he tells us at the end – speaking as the adult in recollection and referring to his alcoholism – “I didn’t make it out alive after all”, but Yenson’s acting is so articulate that we’ve realized this already. He moves with the hesitancy of someone who’s been physically crippled by emotional violence.  He expresses such intense victimization and resentment that he doesn’t even evoke pity, only recognition.

The playwright, in the role of Toby, has a lengthy near-monologue that he executes with deft, meticulous technique.

There are nearly no other problems with the ensemble’s acting – only that the actress playing Mdme Gettysburg has a voice so squeaky that it’s annoying. Throughout, the cast’s work is crisp and well analyzed.

The director, Brandi Varnell, keeps everything moving briskly and with careful rhythm. Her blocking is so good that those of us on the side of the stage never feel that we’re missing a gesture. With the production’s heady pace, she makes demands on out listening skills. The playwright tells us a thing only once, and one of the things that make the production so engrossing is that we have to concentrate to keep up with it. The set and lighting are first-rate as well.

The production’s only general weakness is its lack of subtlety. The show is in a tiny theatre (seating only about 50), and the acting is at times too big for the space. For example, the actors playing Julep and EthelynnAnn are so determined to show us the subtext of their lines that leave nothing for us to divine; they leave no work for us to do, no contribution for us to make. This is a common problem off-off-Broadway.

There's a sex scene in the play that should be reconsidered. But Dylan Lamb is a playwright of extraordinary talent, and will undoubtedly be widely recognized in time. He never dwells on a moment, never skims over it; each dramatic element is given the weight it needs to balance the whole. His characters are bizarre without being grotesque. The structure is tight without being obvious. Like Tennessee Williams, he slips delicately poetic lines into the dialog almost without our being aware of them. When she complains about the heat in the attic, Mdme Julep says “It’s as if the devil himself moved in to get a better view.”

Lamb peppers the dialog with malapropisms so that it doesn’t get oppressive. But Varnell overlooks these in the fever of the moment, and they aren’t effective. What keeps the dialog from being dismal is not its humor but the weirdness of the situation.

We’d like to see more from Lamb as soon as possible.