By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
If only we could tithe to the muse who inspires the strange and wonderful plays Matthew Posey thinks up and puts on at his Ochre House theater. His latest, written and directed by Posey, starring Justin Locklear, Elizabeth Evans and Posey, is Dreams of Slaughtered Sheep, a two-act comic meditation on insomnia and sheep-killing. With puppets. And lively old-timey hymn singin'.
Whatever it takes to keep Posey, his creative muse and their prosy collaboration going, we need to be doing it. A good start is buying tickets (just $15 each, which includes a free slug of wine or beer) to this play. What Posey and his company of artists do with their tiny budget on their tiny stage is make big, beautiful pieces of art. Ochre House's productions aren't just solid productions of well-written, superbly acted theater; they're sculptural installations, every image designed and framed for startling impact, but in ways that never seem contrived or false.
Dreams is full of dreamlike visuals. Locklear, an actor in his 20s so talented and attractive the countdown clock to his departure for L.A. must be in the final minutes, plays a man who can't sleep. His character, Spencerville, works as a "trimmer" on the kill floor at a slaughterhouse, delicately slicing tender bits off the carcasses of sheep. He comes home exhausted to the apartment he shares with "Charliewise" (Posey), who uses bigger knives, which he calls "kindlies," in his job in the "quarters" section of the line.
"I am here again in this darkness," Spencerville says in the first line of the play. And there he sits in a chair in near-darkness between the bodies of two sheep, suspended by their hind legs upside down on either side of him. And this is where the Posey touch comes in. From the shoulders up, Locklear is encased inside a giant Spencerville puppet mask 10 times the size of the actor's head, but with moving eyes and the same bushy beard. Locklear wears the mask, which he also designed and built, only in the few scenes where his character is haunted by sleeplessness. It's a funny and powerful expression of how it feels to have chronic insomnia, lying awake hour after hour, trapped inside your own throbbing skull.
Spencerville can't get to sleep counting sheep because he sees them screaming and bleeding, and he fixates on the terrified look in their eyes as they come into the slaughterhouse. Should you know that the onstage sheep are puppets too? They talk to Spencerville. They're not happy. (Created from thrift store rugs and leather bits, Locklear's puppet ovines are marvelous creatures.)
Most of the play has Posey and Locklear engaged in rigorous, often hilarious backs-and-forths over a white table in their all-white kitchen. (Scenery and lighting were designed by Posey, Justin Hunter Allen and Lucy Kirkman.) They speak in a Posey-invented patois that's a mix of Shakespearean iambic verse, James Joyce's grub-worker slang and the peculiarly formal cadence of hillbilly dialect. "Great churches!" Posey's character, a lummox in a blood-spattered T-shirt, exclaims. He's head-over-hoof for a pretty girl at the slaughterhouse but doesn't know how to approach her. How about slipping her a note? suggests Spencerville. No good, answers Charliewise: "I miss in the missives because I missed out on proper schooling."
The wordplay is fantastic. "God works in delirious ways," says Charliewise, and forced friendship can be "an ill-fitted jigsaw puzzle."
Brimming with references to the Bible, the Bard, the blind prophet Tiresias and the 13th century poet Rumi, Dreams of Slaughtered Sheep is one of Posey's headiest plays yet. He expects the audience to keep up with all this. He never stops to explain.
The onstage musical trio of Floyd Kearns-Simmons on cello, Trey Pendergrass (keyboard and percussion) and Natalie Young (percussion) play and harmonize on haunting hymns, including some original songs, with lyrics about Jesus, blood and lambs. They provide sound effects when needed, such as the clanking of chains or the soft ping of a gong.
In the second act, a woman appears. Chloe (Evans) might or might not be the object of Charliewise's desire. But she's bleeding from her hands and needs bandaging. She drinks moonshine out of jelly jars with the guys, toasting "To the woolies!"
It wouldn't be a Posey play without some graphic bloodletting and be warned that the evening ends with a knife on somebody's throat. Sweet dreams.