Hunter Gatherers offers us a bleak world. The four characters are clueless and lost, even when exuding superficial confidence. None of them seems to have escaped the petty positions they found themselves in during high school, even though graduation is 17 years in the past.
Lost since high school: (from left) Dan Hopman, Bethany Ford, Kevin McLaughlin, and Jen Scott
Hunter Gatherers Red Eye Theater, 15 W. 14th St., Minneapolis
Through October 30; 612.870.0309
Oh, and a sheep is slaughtered in the first few minutes.
Okay, it's not a real sheep, just a puppet banging against the side of a cardboard box, but the bloodstain left from the fresh kill is visible onstage throughout the show, reminding us what's at stake in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's violent comedy about what lies beneath our civilized ways. While it doesn't feel as if the Red Eye actors pull out everything possible from the material, they do bring enough to make the madness worth it.
There's a lot of madness to deal with, and the slaughtered sheep is just an appetizer. The four main characters seem to be linked closely together. The two couples were a pack in high school, attended prom together as a double date, and even got married on the same day. Since then, they've gathered every year on their anniversary for a dinner party. By the time they are 35, those high school links have fallen away, leaving four people adrift in adulthood, vaguely unhappy and lacking the skills to address their troubles any more maturely than they would have as teenagers.
Alpha male Richard (Dan Hopman) is a restless spirit driven by dreams of bloody manhood that manifest in his artwork (I envision giant metal phalluses shooting into the sky in a sculpture garden) and his already mentioned cooking (the sheep). Tom (Kevin McLaughlin) has found the greatest success, working as a doctor for a local hospital, but he is still crushed by the insecurities from two decades before, especially when it comes to his relationship with athletic Richard.
The ladies' friendship goes even deeper, predating high school: The two had their first periods at the same time, and they are still on the same cycle. Still, physical therapist Wendy (Bethany Ford) is jealous of Richard's virility and can't fathom why Pam (Jen Scott) doesn't want to have children.
Even their high school days come into question as we move deeper into the piece, where we discover that the friendships were built on their desires to find safety in that cutthroat world. Tom especially seems to be still paying for poor choices he made all those years ago, when he left behind his "nerdy" friends to become a kind of mascot for the popular kids. They must have teased him mercilessly at the time, and he took it then just as he has taken it for the two decades since.
These aren't just mismatched couples. The characters wouldn't be much better if they had swapped partners. Tom and Pam are gentler souls but would have trouble connecting with each other; Richard and Wendy would turn into that couple at the arty party, talking too loudly and repelling everyone who meets them.
I don't think Nachtrieb is all that interested in finding happiness for our characters. Instead, he spends much of the time stripping away their surface traits to get to whatever savagery lies beneath. For the company, the job is to bring that out as in a classic farce, slowly building the show's energy toward its madcap conclusion.
It's largely successful. Ford hit me as being a bit too on-point as Wendy; with her savagery so ferocious from the get-go it's hard to build a connection with her. Scott and McLaughlin keep that undercover better than the others, providing the only characters we may feel a bit of sympathy for, even for a short moment.
Hopman is the star, however, making Richard a vain, pretentious ass who nevertheless demands attention every time he's onstage. This is a man who was always in charge as a youth and now finds himself restless in the adult world, where his savagery—which might do well for him in business or politics—has lost its direction, whether he is nervously jumping from pursuit to pursuit or just tormenting poor Tom. Only in the end, when he reduces his life to the basics of eating and procreation, does he find salvation. Hopman fearlessly takes the journey, providing a funny and brutal character who is fine to observe from a distance, but one you wouldn't want to meet at a dinner party.