Monday, November 05, 2018

Pitchfork Disney Scares the Hell Out of Us




The Pitchfork Disney by British playwright Phillip Ridley had a reprise at Monmouth College’s Wells Theatre for two performances last week. We missed the performances last year while we were in Arizona so jumped at the chance to take a look at the work of this new, at least to me, playwright.
The music was loud and bouncy as we crossed the lobby and treked through a floor littered with what appeared at first to be little rubber grasshoppers, but later turned out to represent cockroach carcasses. This was definitely going to be different. We passed through the auditorium and took our seats on the stage. The two walled set was positioned cornerwise and three rows of folding chairs surrounded it on two sides. There was now no doubt that we were going to get an up close, sweat gland experience of what was described by one London critic as “in-yer-face-theatre.” The two walls in front of the seats depicted a dirty dilapidated living area in an English city. There was one curtained door to other parts of the house and a battered entry door secured by locks, bolts, chains, and a bar that looked a lot like an old cricket bat. The furniture was sparse and unmatched--a table, some chairs, an old sideboard, and one easy chair. This was not upstairs or even downstairs at Downton Abbey. It reeked of poverty and decay.    
I’ll jump ahead now and say that we were emotionally exhausted at the end of the play. For me it was an often jumbled, but still prophetic, phantasmagoric jumble of dystopian eventualities.  Professor Doug Rankin’s director’s notes were accurate. He wrote that playwright Ridley has called his plays “tuning forks” and that they vibrated with what is going on at the time.
For me the signal emotion was “fear.” All of the swirling themes come back to that barred door. Whatever the problem, and there are multiple possibilities facing the sadly inadequate denizens of this room, brother and sister Presley and Hayley Stray are faced at every turn by an existential fear of attack by murderous  forces. They are clearly “strays” ripped out of the world of early Rock and Roll.
Although my tuning fork was vibrating on the current Trump attempt to jack up violence in his base by creating the threat of foreign invaders charging out of Mexico to rape and pillage, the fear could just as well be of a nuclear cataclysm. The characters often look out of the single window, positioned dead front, into a desolate and still smoldering cityscape. This is shades of Sameul Beckett’s Endgame.) That exterior view could also represent an environmental disaster that has finally killed off almost all living things. (Shades of Trump again.)
Whatever may be outside what is inside is the stoking of hatred  all Latinos, Blacks, Jews, and anyone other than aggressively straight white people. Intimacy seems only to be achieved by force rather than respect or sympathy.  A final straw is provided by the fear that more and more of the populace will face these new challenges by drugging themselves into a stupor. The powerful will encourage this because where there is no consciousness there is no resistance. All of these themes can be seen and felt in Pitchfork Disney.
Miles Rose as the caring brother (Elvis) Presley Stray gives an all out tour de force performance for a young actor. His eyes make him seem a docile puppy when he receives or remembers, however falsely, kindnesses from his parents or the threatening visitor. When he erupts it is into frenetic fits and writhing on the floor.  
Amelia Chavez plays (Bill and his Comets) Haley Stray, the often comatose sister. She has gotten lost at the zoo (think of Albee--indeed think of Fridley mining the whole of Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd from Pinter on.) Haley dominates Act I by literally exuding the fragility of the unprotected in society. Unfortunately this Laura has no menagerie--only pills and a “dummy.” (a British term for a baby pacifier.) Unfortunately she spends most of final act asleep under a blanket. I wish she were given a bit more to do other than be a symbol of victimhood on all levels.  
Cosmo Disney is the third character on the scene and seems to represent the evil intruding class. As played by Declan Crego, he is a friendly charmer one moment and a Pinteresque threat the next. To keep the popular music and entertainment idea afloat, he looks like a suitably androgynous young David Bowie. He enters in a funereal black coat that he soon sheds to reveal a devilish red sequined jacket. He says he makes a lot of money by eating cockroaches and other creatures at night clubs. Both he and Miles Rose execute superior pantomime when the bugs on the floor in the lobby creep into the action on stage. Even mimed, eating bugs is about as creepy as it can get. Cosmo, like Presley, alternates between strangely passive behavior and violent outbursts. He lulls Presley into believing that he will guard and protect the sister and sends him off with his henchman Pitchfork (Richard Eyre) to buy chocolate and medicine. Presley is barely out the door before Cosmo is raping the comatose Haley. Trust is dangerous and futile in dystopias. All that is Disney is turned on its head.  
The final character is labeled the Pitchfork Cavalier and played by Richard Eyre. He is Cosmo’s henchman and driver. He may be  the most frightening of all the characters. As an actor he is a ferocious hulking presence complete with a coal black Hannibal Lector mask. He is a blunt force killer absent all rational communication. A Cavalier is often seen as a dashing mounted soldier, but this scary hulk can only sing a few notes of a song after struggling to climb atop a chair. Tis very curious and bizarre to think here of another Absurdist, Eugene Ionesco, and his play The Bald Soprano, which disintegrates into gibberish at the end. Eyre's silence is somehow more moving and gut wrenching than all the others who spew torrents of words in endless monologues.
He is a pitchfork serial killer who stabs children and leaves behind a Mickey Mouse doll. In this world we are battered with a traumatic reversal of the Disney mythology. There are no gay songs, bright colors, or lovable blue birds here. The walls are gray, the violence is gruesome, and we are in the world of Grimm and Hansel and Gretel are being chucked into the oven.    
Kudos to the pasty green light that often accompanies looking out the window and to the steamy red that accentuates the rape scene. Also a congratulation to whoever managed the contrast between the black Lector mask and those soft white hands with black nail polish on Richard Eyre.
You cannot truly like this play. It portrays a world so dark that some might doubt there is any valid solution. Should our coming election put no check on the Trumpian dystopia, we may indeed have to consider trusting no one, barricading ourselves from the outside, and taking our pills. I must admit I would like to see a bit more light at the end of the tunnel. Act II goes on too long. Monologists are at heart too taken by their belief that audiences want to hear everything  they have to say.

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