Last Thursday night, my friend Chris and I went downtown to the Phoenix Theatre to see a double bill. First was a one-act play called “June 8, 1968,” written by Anna Theresa Cascio and directed by Bryan Fonseca. Next was a one-act play called “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?” written by Caryl Churchill and directed by Scot Greenwell.
The two pieces are very different from each other in terms of style and content, but they both explore themes of conspiracy, freedom, and love in artistically interesting ways.
In “June 8, 1968,” a clean-cut, tightly-disciplined man with a gun (Doug Johnson as Twitchell) and an irreverent, hippie-esque man with a gun (Benjamin Snyder as Boy) seem to be law enforcement officers staking out a section of wilderness. The set, designed and lit by director Bryan Fonseca with technical direction and properties by Justin Kidwell and sound design by Tim Brickly, is lush with green bushes, tall grasses, fallen logs, crickets, and ferns. However, it also includes a train track running from back to front, so we know this can’t be too far from civilization.
Twitchell takes the work much more seriously than the “Boy,” who is really, we eventually learn, a has-been teen idol named Cookie. In addition to his gun holster and his two-way radio for his law enforcement work – or whatever these two men are up to – Cookie has a pocket transistor radio for listening to music, supplies for cooking the frogs he catches, and a needle and thread for repairing the peace sign patches on his bell-bottom jeans.
Twitchell is hidden off stage when Bedra (Kelli Johnson) appears on the train track. There is no costume designer listed in the program, but Bedra looks exactly like a smart, rebellious private school teenager from 1968. She wears a short plaid skirt, chaste white knee socks, and two ponytails held in place by elastics with big, acrylic balls on the ends, but she also wears embroidered Chinese slippers on her feet, a tiny braid in front of one ponytail, and a fringed leather shoulder bag.
She also wears monstrous orthodontic headgear that makes her serious, socially-awkward but not unconfident manner of speaking unintentionally hilarious. She is overcome to find herself in the presence of the one and only Cookie, but also outraged to find him in what she thinks of as her special, secret place. She thought she would be able to see Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train pass in private.
Cookie flirts determinedly with her out of habit, it seems, and she bristles back defensively, but the growing chemistry between them is unmistakable. Sometimes the unexpected tenderness between them is breathtaking in its poignancy, especially since Twitchell is always in the background, waving his gun at Cookie and urging him to get on with doing what he came here to do. By the time we learn that Bedra has tapes of her powerful father planning the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and that Cookie has been promised a come-back TV show if he can get her to reveal where she hid the tapes, they are truly attracted to each other.
And truly doomed.
Chris and I both laughed a lot during this piece – especially at the cultural references we recognized from our own younger days – but the ending was, for me anyway, a shock.
When the house lights came up we both felt wrecked. (“Wrecked” is Chris’ word; I’m borrowing it, but “devastated” would work, too.)
After a while I asked Chris, “Do we know who really killed Bobby Kennedy?”
“Sirhan Sirhan did, but there has always been a question about whether or not he acted alone.”
“So this is a ‘what if’ piece?”
During the intermission, stage manager Dani Norberg shoved a tree stump out of the way and replaced it with a black-and-white, geometrically-patterned rug with a Tao sign in the center of it. On this rug she placed a black leather and chrome sofa. Behind the sofa and off to one side she placed a small drinks cart or bar. A screen came down at the back of the stage and showed a circle with a multi-colored geometric pattern inside it. The lights (set and lights designed by Bryan Fonseca) focused our attention on this small portion of the stage, putting the greenery from the first piece in shadow.
In “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?” two male lovers seem to be like gods on Mount Olympus, plotting and maneuvering events, countries, and peoples on Earth for their own amusement. In fact, as the scenes change, the sphere on the screen behind them gradually comes to resemble our planet from space. (Slides and special effects by James Moriarty.)
One of the men, Sam (Michael Shelton), is in charge of pouring the drinks – coffee or whiskey. He also seems to be in charge of the relationship. He shouts orders and the other man, Jack (Roger Ortman), scurries to carry them out via his laptop. Sam shouts about “Freedom!” a lot, too. He appears sympathetic when Jack seems to be missing his family and other friends, but he also demands complete commitment from him.
Sam always sits with his legs wide apart, as if what is between them is too powerful, or maybe too precious, to be confined. Jack always sits primly, as if protecting what’s between his legs but willing to open them when signaled. Jack gives affection; Sam receives it.
It is a disturbingly unbalanced and abusive relationship, for all its exhileration on both sides. Jack tries to leave Sam at one point, but ultimately can not stay away.
Witnessing their fast-paced dialogue of mostly short (one or two word) sentence fragments is like standing next to cascade after cascade of glass shards: fascinating and maybe even beautiful in a way but also painfully jagged, and not a little scary. Phoenix Managing Director Sharon Gamble said in her curtain talk that Churchill is known for her “staccato” writing style. Director Greenwell and the two actors have heightened this quality very effectively.
When the house lights came up after “Drunk Enough” Chris said, “Well, I can’t say I enjoyed that.” The shouting in this piece on top of the realistically loud gunshots in the first piece had given him a headache.
I can’t say that I enjoyed “Drunk Enough,” either, mostly because I hadn’t read my program ahead of time and I didn’t really get the piece until I talked it over with Chris afterwards. (“Sam is the United States and Jack is Britain?!? Ohhhh!”)
Even then, I was very, VERY glad that the Phoenix does not make its audiences go through a cast reception line after a show. Even more than usual, I needed time to just process what I had seen and heard and felt before I had to come up with something coherent to say about it. I had felt wrecked after the first piece. Now I felt…bruised.
However, I also felt that I had gotten to see some excellent acting and that my theatrical horizons had been broadened. Those two things are always good. I was also glad to have seen another Midwest premiere. (“Drunk Enough…”)
“June 8, 1968” and “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?” run as a double bill through this Saturday, November 15, 2008 at the Phoenix Theatre. The Thursday night performance is always a “Cheap Seats Night.” To make a reservation, please call 317-635-PLAY (7529).
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com