Love Spurts

Brad Fraser's neogothic drama spirals out of control

Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love
Outward Spiral Theatre Company

Angelheaded Hipster
Illusion Theater

Theater rarely frightens us. It's too staged, too scripted--causing attempts at terror to come off as some second-rate Spooky World. But as Outward Spiral Theatre Company's production of Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love begins, it seems the cast means to climb from the rut and conjure up some real dread in the darkened seats. Shadowy corridors, wild graffiti, and crumbling brick surround us. Psycho-techno music furnishes atmosphere, as the darkly clad cast sways in unison to an unseen force. Benita (Jodi Kellogg), a fortuneteller in black fingernails and white thigh-highs, lights candles and intones in her deep, crackling voice, "The case of the headless boyfriend. That's a good one...."

Company members cackle as Benita embarks on one of those horror stories you learned at camp. The tale grows predictably gruesome--Benita relishes its neogothic bloodletting, and the cast ratchets up its maul-and-response chortling. They're not trying to scare us, we realize. They're summoning the specter of fear, only to mock its appearance.

The play, authored by Brad Fraser, traces the messy couplings of remarkably screwed-up characters as a serial killer runs berserk in town. Our heroes, roommates (gay) David and (straight?) Candy, read the newspaper and shake their heads: "They found another girl this morning. Mutilated. Bleeding." But life goes on, and Candy, David, and the other five characters take stabs at drawing the fine line between love and psychosis all on their own. Tapers flicker, shadows lengthen, characters lust: We watch Jerri (Kate Eifrig), the lesbian at the gym, eyeball a scantily clad Candy (Sarah Brown) lifting weights as her sweat-slicked skin glows. Is this a sweet crush or a sick obsession?--a question we're prone to ask of each character's ambiguous doings. Director Timothy Lee's atmospherics bring us to the point where any sex could end in blissful rapture or ghastly death. As each dalliance detonates at ground zero, the fallout lands somewhere in the gray zone--suggesting, again, that violence springs from passion all too naturally.

For David (Ryan Jensen, a standout in a top-tier cast), danger is erotic, an aphrodisiac of the first order: "It's warm. I start thinking about Victoria Park....It's dark. The wind's blowing. You can hardly see anything when you get into the trees....Cigarettes glow. Someone coughs. Someone clears their throat. Someone moans." Through Jensen's nearly breathless incantations and glistening eyes we feel the rush of the risk. Are we afraid or turned on? As whispered words--"skin," "hair," "breasts," "hands," like a litany of anatomical idolatry--float across the stage, we wonder if the images are erotic, vicious, or both. Sex and hazard become inextricable; we travel back and forth through states of arousal until we, too, are carried to a climax that welds hot kisses to chilling horror. The dissonance created is as live as theater gets.

For its part, Angelheaded Hipster thrives on the marriage of the incongruous. Illusion Theater's ode to Allen Ginsberg collapses time and blends wildly different styles to compose its meaning. Collage is our vehicle, or so our narrator, William S. Burroughs (Tom Carey), tells us. He slices a poem, shuffles the scraps, and reads the results. "Take anything and cut it up," he instructs. "You will find hidden meaning in the pieces juxtaposed." Maybe, maybe not. Playwright/director Kent Stephens offers a collage in equal parts affecting and alienating, inspired and indulgent--much as was Ginsberg himself.

All three of him. The production gives us Ginsberg the Youth (Brian Goranson), the Adult (T. Mychael Rambo), and the Elder (Michael Tezla). As Young G. learns the ways of the world, Adult G. hangs out in guru outfit and free-love beard, interspersing lines of poetry into Young's scenes (and sometimes, when we're lucky, singing them). Goranson attacks the role, hunching his shoulders and throwing his voice deep into the recesses of his nasal cavity. But as a character, Young G. is, well, irritating. Case in point: When he gets committed to the loony bin, he whines, "They took away my copy of The Bhagavad Gita!" then boasts to his cell mates, "I prophesied that they would banish me here years ago--when I saw God."

Part of Stephens's art lies in simultaneously presenting us with a character and a caricature, but the pre-eminence of the latter makes Ginsberg the Man difficult to care much about--and therefore a burden to follow for two-and-a-half hours' worth of sketches (a mix of comic, realistic, bathetic, lyric). At each moment, we're given to wonder: Is this history or hallucination?

Stephens is among the best theatrical minds around these parts, and when the tensions in his staging work, the results delight. Still, if there is a method behind this maddening collage, we're not made privy to it. How can we possibly find hidden meaning in the production as a whole when we're still trying, long after the final curtain has fallen, to fit together the pieces?

Unidentified Human Remains plays at the Hennepin Center for the Arts Little Theatre through November 7; 504-2323. Angelheaded Hipster runs through November 22 at the Illusion Theater; 339-4944.

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