By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Playwright-novelist-children's author-film director Phillip Ridley is one of those multi-hyphenated artists who believe that the message transcends the medium or, plainly put, that a compelling story is paramount in every field in which he works. He does more than just "dabble" in all these professions. He understands that the tools particular to each must not be fetishized or formalized but used in service to an atmospheric yarn that earns our attention through to the end.
He has produced something approaching a classic in most of these media--Krindlekrax, a kid's book about a city boy who tames a 20-foot sewer crocodile while stuck in the creature's mouth; The Reflecting Skin, a gorgeously despairing "horror" flick about an abused boy in the countryside who believes the widow next door is a vampire; and the play The Pitchfork Disney, given a co-American and reputedly extraordinary premiere (I didn't see it) by Kitchen Dog Theatre in 1995. It concerned a pair of 28-year-old childlike twins suffering torturous insomnia who are lured into the clutches of a sexy, neo-fascist prophet.
Do we detect a trend here? Ridley insists the best storytellers are children and that if we're willing to give ourselves over to them and trust what they have to say, we become childlike, too--that is, submerged in that weird combination of vulnerable and invincible when facing improbable situations.
Kitchen Dog returns to the British author of one of its best-received productions with The Fastest Clock in the Universe, which steps back from youthfulness as a wellspring of inspiration and looks at youth as a barbarous and ever-elusive concept. Though it may represent an evolution of sorts from his usual obsessions, the play is not among the most pungently affecting tales Ridley has written in his prolific career. You feel a scheme, a kind of preordained reflexive morality play running around underneath, breaking the surface of plot and character like the jagged spikes of Krindlekrax's spine. Director Tina Parker does manage to squeeze every last drop of inky black humor from this tale of a cocksure young seducer who refuses to acknowledge his real age and the calamity that arises when he meets a controlling young woman who foils his amorous plans. If it's axiomatic that Parker is the best director in Kitchen Dog's kennel, then we must expand conventional wisdom to recognize her as one of the most formidable young shapers of actor and author working in this (and, I'd venture, many other) theater scene.
The Fastest Clock in the Universe takes place in a city that's either futuristic or alternative in its reality, a blasted-out landscape that's full of shrieking, predatory birds whose presence appropriately pecks at our nerves, thanks to Mark Griffin's aviary collage of horrific sounds. There are stuffed and toy birds, too, inside the cracked-egg shop of Captain Tock (Lynn Mathis). He loves his flying creatures, mostly as a substitute for the unreturned affections of Cougar Glass (Isaiah Cazares), a James Dean manqué who pursues and conquers pretty young men any place he can find them--even hospitals. For the occasional begrudging hug, Tock agrees to the role of co-conspirator in snagging these trophies and co-dependent in maintaining the illusion that Cougar is still 19. We're not certain what anniversary of that particular birthday is being celebrated with cake and vodka this night, but Glass has asked a brown-eyed pickup named Foxtrot Darling (Billy Gill) to party with him. As a birthday surprise, Foxtrot brings along his pregnant fiancée Sherbet Gravel (Kelley McRae), a slutty passive-aggressive who's determined to direct the course of the evening's fun and games.
The Fastest Clock in the Universe never really develops much from this situation--the climactic, violent altercation feels like an arbitrary way to bring the show to an "exciting" conclusion--but Parker guarantees that her actors have a nasty good time cavorting in their pathetic and stunted roles. Kitchen Dog sometimes uses Southern Methodist University undergrads in its productions, pups who are technically proficient but still rather slack in their developing artistic muscle. McRae as Gravel is, however, a real find, a bosomy harpy whose perpetual smile becomes hilariously manic and intimidating when Foxtrot and the others don't follow her rules; it's a priceless adult variation on the Peanuts' Lucy Van Pelt. Her performance would be the most impacting, if not for the one-scene appearance of Rhonda Boutte as Cheetah Bee, Cougar and Captain's ancient landlady draped in rotting mink fur. Creaking around on a walker, flashing her hideous decaying leer, Boutte steals the show only to return it to us with the wicked irreverence toward innocence and wise old age that Ridley withheld in the final draft of his script.