Crushing Grain and Slasher Blend Violence And Dark Comedy With Mixed Results
The hardest words for some playwrights to type: The End. Two new plays on Dallas stages right now—Bill Fountain's Crushing Grain at The Dallas Hub and Allison Moore's Slasher at Kitchen Dog Theater—each clock in at less than 90 minutes, but both suffer from pernicious run-on syndrome.
Here are single-act plays with initially intriguing premises. Crushing Grain, produced on a tiny budget by Fountain's Level Ground Arts group, looks at some unexplained paradoxes in the life of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Why did he try to defect to the Soviet Union? How did he end up in Oak Cliff's Texas Theater on the day of the shooting? And was he really the lone gunman or, as Oswald said to the television cameras, was he merely a "patsy" set up by other conspirators?
This is good stuff. Compelling. Not since Dallas Theater Center premiered John Logan's Jack Ruby, All-American Boy in 1974 has a local company dared to use the city's most infamous event for something original and provocative on a stage. (Sondheim's Assassins, which features an Oswald figure, doesn't count.)
Fountain's play opens with its lead character (played by unpolished student actor and Oswald lookalike Nick Jones) waking up in a bare hospital room. As he rambles through a confusing tumble of memories of that day in November 1963, we realize he may not be Oswald after all. He may be Alek Hidell, whose name was on the mailed-in purchase order for the cheap Italian rifle that Oswald used to kill Kennedy. The trivial act of filling in the order form has had history-changing significance, driving "Alek" to the edge of madness.
All pretty interesting for about 45 minutes. Then fwomp, this play loses focus and momentum in its second half. Fountain suddenly abandons his central figure and spins off into a confounding series of disjointed speeches about bread-making, water-boarding and cancer. Characters who might be President Kennedy (Robert G. Shores) and Saddam Hussein (Daylon Walton) sit in the front row and pop up now and then to comment lightheartedly on performances. "Carry on, good thespians!" says JFK. Then comes a detour into a present-day setting that looks like Abu Ghraib. Lee/Alek, strapped to a wooden trestle, is surrounded by faceless people in pointy black hoods as a chatty government agent (Fountain) pours water down the man's throat till he chokes. Ick.
An insistent underscore of live guitar and violin throbs and wheezes tunelessly up and over the dialogue as the play devolves into choppy vignettes and noisy soliloquies about things that have no connection to the Oswald-JFK thread. After what feels like the natural final scene, there's an awkwardly grafted-on epilogue inside a cancer survivors' support group whose members share stories of personal suffering. Long stories. Long, boring stories.
What starts as a lively exploration of the mysteries surrounding Lee Harvey Oswald ends in a cacophonous chorus of ideas that makes sense only in the mind of the playwright. It's fine for a playwright to write it all down. That doesn't mean the audience has to be subjected to every word of it. Good plays say and do only what is absolutely necessary. Crushing Grain (the title comes from one of the ongoing themes about the lack of nutrition in mass-produced bread) is a case of an unsure writer, Fountain, who also directs and acts in the piece, being unable or unwilling to pull the trigger on his own work.
Slasher, a much slicker play professionally produced by the company at Kitchen Dog, wants to be a pitch-black comedy send-up of the genre of bloody horror flicks to which the Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street series belong. Or does it?
A young Austin waitress named Sheena (Martha Harms) is plucked from obscurity to be the "last girl" in an R-rated massacre movie shooting up the road in Round Rock. Her mother (Lisa Hassler), an embittered painkiller addict who zooms around in a motorized scooter-chair, tries to stop her from taking the part. Mom blames the lecherous young director (Chris Hury) for ruining her own life years before. She sets out to stop the filmmaker from exploiting her daughter, enlisting the help of a right-wing anti-abortion rights protester (Leah Spillman) with access to homemade explosives.
A play with a juicy setup like that should be as entertaining as the movies that inspired it. But Moore, whose previous plays at KDT were all better than this one (the best was the Dust Bowl tragedy End Times), pulls back on the comedy and the violence just when she should have been piling them on. It could be as funny as Scream and as shrieky-scary as Hostel, but Slasher turns slushy as it tries to be political with shrill, third-wave feminist rants about victimization of women, and side-rants about abortion rights, drug addiction, rape, vigilantism and women's professional sports.
Staged by director Tina Park on an enormous set by Clare Floyd DeVries that looks like remnants of an old carnival fun house, Slasher is unusually sloppy for a Kitchen Dog show. Reviewed at a performance a full week into its run, actors missed cues and stumbled over lines, and the movable set pieces balked during scene changes. Acting styles were all over the place. Hassler, playing the mother as a growling gargoyle, goes over the top of the top as she careens around the stage in her chair like Baby Jane Hudson on a tear. Harms, by contrast, has a pretty face but a flabby physicality, too relaxed in scenes where she ought to be tense.
Spillman, KDT's fallback ingenue (though she's getting too long in the tooth to pass for 30 much longer), reaches into a familiar bag of overacting tricks to play the Christian crusader lady, then a car hop, a movie extra and some others. New York transplant Hury, as the film director desperate to wrap his low-budget thriller, is believably smarmy. He has his best moments opposite wiry Dallas actor Drew Wall, who plays an overeager production assistant suddenly thrust into acting out the movie's most gruesome killings. The best performance in the show comes from gamine actress Rebekah Kennedy as Sheena's younger sis, having a devil of a time studying for SATs while her mother sets the timer on the family's destruction. She's the quiet touch of normalcy in this crazy zoo, and she's funny.
It's no surprise that Slasher copycats a typical slasher movie climax. It is surprising how badly it does it. The big machete that last bloody character wields could be put to better use slashing away at the script.
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