Hello, Cruel World

Nasty people take over at Mixed Blood and CalibanCo

It's tough to dredge up vast quantities of sympathy for a character whose major act of teenage rebellion is to apply to Columbia rather than Stanford, and who schemes to wreck both her parents' marriage and her brother's engagement. In the case of Shilpa Shah in Mixed Blood's Queen of the Remote Control, one is inclined to try. Taj Jansz Ruler brings an anarchic spirit to her role as a domestic adolescent terrorist chafing against the smooth outer surfaces of her life. Overall, though, the production struggles to cohere and to rise above the pedestrian.

Shilpa is 17 and ready to press the eject button on her comfortable family home. Her father Ashok is a doctor, a bigot, and an emotionally shut-down smartass (Zaraawar Mistry plays him with anti-charisma and gets many of the night's laughs). Her mother Divya is a compulsive materialist who, when trying to say something positive about her husband, manages only to weakly assert that she doesn't only hate him.

"Listen here, Missy, 'CSI: Miami' is way better than 'CSI: New York'": Taj Jansz Ruler (changing channels) stars in 'Queen of the Remote'
Ann Marsden
"Listen here, Missy, 'CSI: Miami' is way better than 'CSI: New York'": Taj Jansz Ruler (changing channels) stars in 'Queen of the Remote'

The set is all miniaturized suburban southern California luxury, which fosters a presumably intended sense of alienation and sterility. This dramatic strategy, in which characters often behave ignobly, and which keeps its audience at arm's length, requires a sort of left-field payoff that never materializes. While many of the scenes have a lightness and pacing reminiscent of a television show, a central conceit--Shilpa's dissociating from reality into the metaphorical soma of the boob tube--is undermined by shaky lighting effects that fail to conjure the inner world into which Shilpa retreats.

Things turn heavier in the second half, when issues of money, marriage, and identity come into play. Aamera Siddiqui lends some grace to the proceedings as a prospective daughter-in-law and the only remotely sane person in the room. Gita Reddy as Divya also makes the most of what the script gives her, revealing a secret from the past and then proceeding to figuratively rip the head off just about everyone in the place. At that point, you're about ready to have a go at a few of them yourself.

 

Many take issue with Neil LaBute's brand of artistic sadism and his preoccupation with human nastiness, but his status as kingpin of cruel sometimes obscures the fact that he often writes very good dialogue. Fine examples of this are to be found in Bash, his 1999 collection of three one-act plays, staged with a good deal of intelligence and precision by CalibanCo Theatre.

It's an ideal work for a small company, performed in this case on a nearly empty stage with the actors addressing invisible interlocutors. The first entry is set in a bar and features an earnest businessman (Jeremiah Stich) recounting how he passively committed an unspeakable crime. Seated on a bare black floor, lit by a single spot, Stich attains a squirm-inducing matter-of-fact embrace of the sort of terrible events that dominate the evening.

The middle segment features Jared Reise and Heidi Berg as vacuous students with wildly divergent memories of a night spent in New York. They're entirely fascinating. Berg layers sorority-girl charm onto her character, while the disarmingly aw-shucks Reise makes the transition from lunkhead boyfriend to raging sociopath without a trace of hesitation or conscience.

The first monologue of the evening was inspired by Euripides' Iphigenia. The third, featuring Christi Cottrell, is based on Medea. In this telling, Cottrell is a young girl who has had an affair with her teacher, gotten pregnant, and subsequently been abandoned by her older lover. Cottrell has the bleakest line of the evening, the last, and she tells her story with a beaten-down, hollowed-out authenticity that pulls the show to an appropriate close.

LaBute's plays, in lesser hands, have as many frayed threads and half-finished stitches as a cheap pair of blue jeans. Director Jeremy Cottrell's cast, however, has put together a harrowing and fascinating production that casts evil as suffused with banality, or perhaps even with banality as its source.

 
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