Day Trippers

PLAYWRIGHT MARSHA Norman once likened plays to a plane ride. "You buy the ticket," she explained, "and you have to get where the ticket takes you. In plays you have eight minutes to let the audience know what's at stake, who this is about, and when they can go home."

I don't agree. Plane trips are the empty space in between departure and destination; if you're looking for a good ride, better to hop on a hang glider and see where it takes you. After the first eight minutes of Traveler in the Dark, Norman's follow-up to the Pulitzer-winning 'night, Mother, you know exactly how the play will resolve. Compare that with Loring Playhouse's production of John Olive's Killers--a noirish, pulpy acid trip that leads the audience to the following realization within the first eight minutes: I have no idea what's going on, but I love it.

Killers, written by local playwright Olive, details the strange happenings of a pulp-fiction writer who has holed up in a run-down boarding house. The residents take him as an expert on killing and try to involve him in their own real-life murderous plots. The production immediately washes the audience in this world. The playing area is an expansive impressionistic set of a decrepit boarding house; the wood rots, the paint peels, the walls crumble. Loud typing sounds punctuate a soundtrack culled from sundry film-noir scores. Red lights cast vertical-blind shadows across the stage. Massive pulp-magazine covers line the walls.

Elevated in the middle of all this and visible through a burned-out fourth wall is writer Charles Blackwell, typing furiously in his room. Noir clips flicker on the back wall. Earl, sporting horn rims, a crew cut, and black socks hiked up to his knees, plays solitaire in the kitchen. Emaciated Lou, wearing a nylon over his hair, baggy briefs, and bunny slippers, runs across the stage, twitching frantically and scratching himself (call it the Peter Lorre role). The landlady, elegantly garbed in a dirty bathrobe and heels, follows Lou and screeches for the rent; Earl screams; Blackwell pounds; music blares. Chaos ensues.

Director Jason McLean makes Killers one of those rare productions that marries its concept to its production aesthetic. The pulsating atonality of the music and the constant rat-tat-tat of the typewriter accelerate the production's heartbeat until it seems frantically attuned to the Benzedrine rush of the characters. The music is perfectly timed so as to pound when one character raps menacingly on a table, and the projected film niftily informs the action on stage. The dark lighting, campy acting style, kitschy costumes, and dilapidated set create a total pulp-within-pulp world. This is the kind of place where a couple shatters all the dishes in the house for a hot-like-fire night, romance is thinking of your love every time you kill, and nothing's cooler than dogshit in the summertime.

Oddly, the metaphysics behind pulp fiction and the domestic drama seem similar; people are deeply flawed and death is the meaning of life. Sam, the embittered protagonist of Traveler in the Dark grew up with an evangelical preacher for a daddy, but his mother's early death has flung him into a vengeful secular humanism; God exists, but Sam's really pissed off at him. Near the beginning of the play, Sam and his wife Glory return home for a friend's funeral, yet Sam cannot venture inside his childhood home nor shake his father's hand. Sam seems the meanest man alive; he berates Glory, snapping at her blithely in the middle of an argument, "I want a divorce...I only married you to spite my father."

There was once a time when Sam was desperate to please his father; at 11, Sam had been a star preacher. A tire swing with the motto "Jesus Saves" hangs on the set, upstage. The swing constantly sways, a taunting reminder of Sam's evangelical past.

The motto on the swing also resonates with the theater company, and its particular history. RTC began as the Refreshment Committee Theater Company--a Lutheran troupe devoted to spreading Christ's word through theater. A few years ago, artistic director Jeff Miller reworked the company's mission to attract a wider audience; Refreshment Committee began producing shows with a generalized spiritual emphasis and in turn earned a measure of secular critical acclaim. When Miller left--along with his wife, who frequently acted in the company's productions--RCTC went on hiatus. This marks its first season back, now under the helm of artistic director Kurt Schweickhardt, who aims to produce theater that is "provocative, spiritually relevant to all people, and explores the place of humans in the cosmos."

The company's evangelical history is bound to contextualize a play where the non-believer is presented as so desiccated and selfish. The production becomes less of a dialogue about belief and more a morality play; to reject the Christian God is to reject compassion altogether. Sam is so unsympathetic that it seems the characters--especially the women--lack all self-respect, otherwise they would pack up and leave. While you know from minute eight that everyone will hug at the end, you can't help hoping someone will just slap Sam and get it over with. They never do.

Killers performs at the Loring Playhouse through March 29; call 332-1619. RTC's next production, Tartuffe, begins April 15. Call 690-9987.

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