“I’m kinda like Ozzy Osbourne,” says award-winning novelist, poet and playwright Denis Johnson, who describes himself as a “criminal hedonist” turned “citizen of life.” “What I write about is really the dilemma of living in a fallen world, and asking: Why is it like this if there’s supposed to be a God?” Johnson is the Resident Playwright of Campo Santo, the theater company in residence at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco, the oldest alternative non-profit art space in a town brimming over with alternative art spaces.
Johnson’s Coen Brothers-ambienced thriller Psychos Never Dream opened Friday March 6 in Kitchen Dog Theatre’s performance space at The MAC on McKinney Avenue, a co-presentation with Project X . Set in rural remote north Idaho, dreams, delusions, and their horrific consequences explode in inebriated Technicolor array, in Johnson’s “fallen world”. Water rights issues, ex-hippies gone to seed or insane, and lust — for sex, for gold, for revenge for perceived betrayal and ancient grudges, all jumble madly together against a stark wilderness background. The play’s lyrical verbal resonance elevates its lonely desperate cacophony to a poignant search for meaning and connection, unexpectedly through gruesome savagery. “Why is it like this if there’s supposed to be a God?” From this play’s perspective, maybe there isn’t one.
The play slams open on main character Critter (Raphael Parry) reveling in surreal horror, as he rants and mumbles, wild-eyed and unkempt, digging a grave in a neighbor’s yard for a cloth-wrapped body he dragged there, a relative he presumably just murdered. The neighbor, Floyd (Sean Hennigan) stumbles upon the grisly proceedings; the action launches with merciless cat-and-mouse vengeance, riveting audience members’ attention, hearts in throats. Critter’s insanity may be due to a mercury-poisoning incident years ago. Raphael Parry cackles, grimaces, sweats and strains with blood-spattered menace and relentless malice, while somehow still conveying a wistful idealism that took a demented detour while he meandered about in life’s wilderness. Critter’s actions are out of control, over the top, random, vulgar and violent, completely irrational. Parry never misses a text-based beat and informs the bizarre script with a credible vitality; a less experienced actor could chew up a lot of idiotic scenery with a misread of this role. Parry’s portrayal never takes license with the script or launches into self-indulgent posturing. In Critter’s solo scene at a pay phone, the audience feels the sad smallness, the vulnerable bewilderment of this strange, unbalanced man, ultimately the universality of his plight, through Parry’s carefully nuanced portrayal.
Floyd comes across initially as a complete contrast, a voice of reason. Hennigan has a commanding presence and deep, gravely voice; his Floyd is a steel-eyed, take-charge sort of redneck. Perhaps he can pull Critter and the mesmerized audience back, teetering as they are at the edge of the black abyss. Soon it becomes apparent that Floyd is just as far gone as Critter, but in a less naked, amoral, manipulative way. Parry’s histrionics and Hennigan’s cool, calm demeanor work effortlessly together in revealing the depth and breadth of insanity and unfettered, calculated desire, so eloquently explored as themes in this play. “Why is it like this if there’s supposed to be a God?”
The play’s third “crazy” is Red, the deranged wife of the murdered man in the grave in Scene 1. Kitchen Dog Theatre’s artistic co-director Tina Parker gives what has to be one of the gutsiest performances of her career, clad scantily in a filthy nightie, stringy hair falling over her face in squalid disarray. She’s every bit a nightmare match for the bad boys, Critter and Floyd. Squealing with fear or grunting with tawdry sexual pleasure, she’s porcine, sub-human, disgusting–and plays her victim role to the hilt. When all is said and done, she may be the mastermind behind all the mayhem that transpires during the course of Psychos Never Dream…. She speaks of vivid dreams, unlike Critter, who reflects, “Six hours a night I sleep in the depths of deepest blackness.” If she’s not “psycho” and out of control, what is she? Trying to make sense of all the Bosch-like pandemonium is the play’s fourth character, the town deputy Sarah, played with dry, realistic understatement by Lisa Lee Schmidt. She’s so real she comes across almost like faded wallpaper when contrasted to the other three characters. But she has her share of issues, too, as her solo monologue on the pay phone reveals. No one escapes the cruel confusions and disappointments of life in Dennis Johnson’s godless universe.
Psychos Never Dream’s director, David Kennedy, worked as the former Associate Artistic Director at Dallas Theater Center, where he directed a staged reading of the play a season ago. It would have been interesting to read his perspectives on the production and his part in its development process in the playbill. His clear understanding of the play’s deranged sensibility and deft skill in holding the playwright’s vision together within modulated chaos enables his actors to create unforgettable relationships. Kitchen Dog Theatre’s mission statement says the company chooses plays that invite audiences to be “provoked, challenged and amazed.” Complimented by a reverberating rock score as sound, sallow-hued, soul-draining lighting effects and a set that unfolds like a hot pillow house hide-a-bed, this production of Dennis Johnson’s Psychos Never Dream is resoundingly awesome in its ability to do all three.
NOTE: Foul language, nudity, sex scenes, graphic violence abound.
Psychos Never Dream runs through April 4, 2009 (Wednesdays through Sundays) at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary (The MAC) 3120 McKinney Ave., Dallas TX. Tickets: 214-953-1055 or www.kitchendogtheater.org
Quotes and bio info about Denis Johnson come from a February 2003 SF Weekly interview and a June 2002 Entertainment feature in New York Magazine