The Things They Carried

Soon to be playing the witches in 'Macbeth'? Larissa Kokernot, Ruth MacKenzie, and Verna Mariner
Peter Vitale

Audiences for the Mary Worth Theatre Company's The Race of the Ark Tattoo must wind their way around the corner of the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, led by a helpful series of chalk arrows, which point them down an alley and into the theater's scene shop. The space is a magnificent clutter of debris, most of it fascinating, none of it worth anything: plastic devil heads, owl masks, individual letters from a Scrabble game. Charles Schuminski, bearded and T-shirt-clad, offers cheery welcomes, pointing out items in this scripted flea market. "This is a ball of rope," he will tell an arriving couple. Another couple arrives after them, and Schuminski greets them. "This is a ball of rope," he tells them.

Schuminski plays two characters in this play, both inhabiting the same body, either through some unworldly process or mental illness. Usually, he is P. Foster, an agreeable, boyish fellow who has taken on the tradition of his deceased foster father, Mr. Phinney. Phinney, we learn, enjoyed holding weekly flea markets and inventing wild stories about every gasoline-soaked sock or half-full Vaseline jar he offered for sale. Schuminski wanders through the crowd with a beat-up toy Winnebago, searching his memory for the stories behind objects randomly picked by the audience. And, deep into a story, Schuminski's voice changes, growing gruff and thick with a New England accent, and his stories become wilder. Suddenly he is the deceased Mr. Phinney, speaking about massages in Oriental countries offered by men without hands and cruel psychologists who bury insect larvae into the heads of schizophrenics as a makeshift cure.

The script, by W. David Hancock, doesn't bother to differentiate between which stories might be true and which might be the purest of invention, and it doesn't really matter. Just as the objects scattered around the room hint at hidden histories, the script does as well, suggesting a world of half-dead memories and long-dead storytellers. The ghosts tell us sordid lies and even more sordid truths, insisting that the remnants of their ruined lives have value, just as they insist that a lead pipe should sell for 30-odd bucks.

There is a similar piece of highly valued refuse in Ten Thousand Things' production of Lisa D'Amour's Anna Bella Eema: a doll, crafted out of mud and a child's bodily fluids. The play has been making its tour of homeless shelters and prisons, as do all Ten Thousand Things' plays, but the company is offering a public performance at the Open Book space this weekend (where I'll see the show for the first time). D'Amour's script tells of a trailer-dwelling mother and daughter who are looking at eviction, and the complications that ensue when the child builds a living doll.

Playwright Lisa D'Amour and W. David Hancock share an affiliation with the Playwrights' Center, where they are core members; they also share an unexpected narrative sensibility that the Brothers Grimm would have delighted in. Just like fairytales, which rarely seemed fixed to any one story, but instead meander off on any variety of fantastical discursions, Anna Bella Eema uses its unlikely premise as an opportunity to peek into all sorts of dusty corners. Her story is equally haunted by vampires and by puzzled meditations on the complexity of familial bonds.

The show's characters, performed by Ruth MacKenzie, Larissa Kokernot, and Verna Mariner, perform the play seated on platforms, where they beat out percussive rhythms on a variety of random household utensils. Taken together, Ten Thousand Things and Mary Worth suggest a marvelous money-saving option for cash-strapped independent theaters--and an ideal double bill for the intrepid theatergoer. Budget-minded directors would do well to rummage through their own attics and garbage cans: Who knows what stories might be lurking there?

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