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What does it say when the theater season opens with two plays about police states? That’s what’s happened this fall, with Breathe Art Theatre and the Abreact group allowing ticket holders to draw their own conclusions.
From Breathe Art comes the local premiere of The Pillowman, an award-winning 2005 drama by Martin McDonagh. Set in an "unnamed totalitarian state," the author of 400 stories — many of which feature murdered children — runs into trouble with swaggering cops. The authorities have dragged the writer, Katurian Katurian, and his traumatized brother, Michal [cq], in for questioning after finding evidence of a grisly murder in the home they share. Soon, the writer finds that he, his family and his body of work are all on trial.
Sound like a good hook, right? But instead of a lively dialectic, the play starts soft: The writer is ready to give up everything from the beginning, whimpering that he isn’t "anti-police" or "anti-state" in the least. "I have complete respect for the police," he insists, even as they torture him. This sheltered bootlicker only develops a backbone after being brutalized by the system.
The performances are often riveting. Kevin T. Young pours on the emotion in his role as the writer. Though he’s best known for his volcanic stage presence, Joel Mitchell gives a believably gentle characterization to Michal. As the sadistic cop Ariel, Patrick Moltane gives a hiss-worthy turn. Also noteworthy is Brian Dambacher’s excellent set design, which takes its cue from German expressionism, crafting a background of screens for pantomime and shadowplay.
Leavened with humor, the story is less about an authoritarian society than the complexity of individuals. What does a story reveal of its author?
If that seems to you like a cop-out for a play about a police state, you’re right. In the 1930s, the American theater responded to the threat of fascism at home with spirited groups who staged open agitprop dramas like It Can’t Happen Here. Such reactions are a far cry from works like The Pillowman, which seem more interested in being brainy than in raising the public alarm.
Then again, trying to turn the United States’ ongoing march toward a police state into laughs would seem an even greater challenge than merely raising awareness. And making our descent into fascism funny is precisely what the Zeitgeist Theatre’s season-opening play, Desperate Losers, Part One: Not Safe For Work tries to do. It goes like this: Guy loses girl; guy loses job; guy loses dignity; guy loses liberty.
It wouldn’t be funny unless it was given the signature over-the-top treatment of absurdist Michael McGettigan, whose production company, Fevered Egos, has had a string of acclaimed hits.
In Desperate Losers, the year is 2012, and, to save money and avoid debtors’ prison, Malcolm McReady (Chuck Reynolds) has moved in with his friend Jack (Dax Anderson), a Bluetooth-wearing regional manager Beef Bucket, the fastest-growing bulk-beef restaurant in Michigan. Jack shares the apartment with goth-blogger Raven (Molly McMahon) and Dutch tourist and couch-surfer Bertold (Sean McGettigan). The busy apartment has characters busting in and out of the door: Malcolm’s ex Cassie (Sarah Switanowski), the demented landlord (Patrick Cronin), a neighborhood b-boy Mike (also Cronin) and even diminutive guitar legend John Oates (Chad Kushuba).
Cronin and McGettigan do a lot with their small parts, showing great comic timing and a flair for their roles. Unfortunately, as Malcolm, Reynolds gives a mannered performance that doesn’t generate much sympathy.
But maybe it doesn’t matter. Needless to say, by the time John Oates has entered the story, the play is the broadest farce imaginable. And suspension of disbelief will not cut it for many theatergoers — that is, unless the rapid-fire jokes leave you laughing so hard you don’t notice the story’s loose ends. At its best, Desperate Losers recalls a pretty good episode of the BBC’s Young Ones: Rapid one-liners, story gimmicks, stereotypes and hip references keep the whole thing afloat.
The Pillowman runs until Oct. 13 at the Furniture Factory (4126 Third St., Detroit). Call 313-549-4108 or see breathearttheatre.com for details.
Desperate Losers Part One: NSFW runs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays until Oct. 20 at the Zeitgeist (2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-965-9192); $10.
Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.