There was always something unnerving to me, as a grade-schooler, about listening to my recording of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. It just rubbed me the wrong way to hear Lucys and Linuses of 30 reciting lines and lyrics which were by turns sweetly simple-minded and smart-alecky. Most people lose these qualities with maturity -- as well they should.
That The Pitchfork Disney, which played last weekend in the Loeb Experimental Theater, presents two exceptions to the rule is thus an understandably unnerving prospect. The play takes as its protagonists Presley and Haley Stray (Matthew D. Johnson ’02 and Catherine B. Gowl ’02), two 28-year-old siblings stuck in a permanent childhood. Gowl’s Haley is the first to grab the audience’s attention, shifting back and forth between petty child and fussy matron in a fine schizophrenic act. The production yields no funnier image than the pajama-clad Gowl perched on a plastic-covered easychair like a demented socialite, articulating her concerns about candy distribution.
The origin of the Stray children’s predicament is never overtly articulated. All that we know is that their parents are long dead or disappeared, and that Presley and Haley have since languished in their house as intellectual and emotional preteens. Did they kill their parents? Red blotches around the set’s living room hint at some bloody work done in the past. Yet the mystery is a red herring. The play, by British scribe Philip Ridley, is more interested in exploring the ins and outs of the characters’ skewed psyches, notably as depicted in the clash that comes when Presley sends Haley into a drug-induced sleep and admits an outsider into their home.
Now, if Blue Velvet taught us anything, it was that releasing new, nasty blood into a population of relative innocents can yield horribly strange and potentially traumatic events. In The Pitchfork Disney, the new blood takes the form of the smooth-voiced and sardonic Cosmo Disney (Thomas H. Price ’02), who works as one half of a two-man freak show. Decked out in a black tuxedo, ordinary save for a flamboyant red coat, Disney proceeds to intimidate the portly, oft-timid Presley in a lengthy, riveting sequence of interplay. Price, for a good while, is sublime, manipulating Presley’s feeble mind with fine skill, shifting between master and mollifier as he holds forth on his personal philosophies. Johnson, his shoulders submissively hunched forward and his voice high and breathy, counters by convincingly transforming himself into a half-attentive, partly-comprehending receptacle for the ideas that the worldly Cosmo spews at him.
Ridley writes himself into a hole, however. Pitchfork’s characters and dialogue support a network of intertwined symbols that grows increasingly complex as the play progresses. Presley in particular is overburdened with thematic importance, and this production additionally sprinkles Presley-as-Christ imagery throughout. Eventually, Presley requires a 15-minute monologue to sort out everything that his character represents. Johnson makes the speech work, no question, but here, as elsewhere, Ridley’s work does not always lend itself to non-thematic nuance.
Not surprisingly, then, as the play’s final third ventures even more deeply into the deranged and surreal, the characters grow a bit tiresome, each having been pitched throughout at a level fairly easy to write and act. When Ridley does provide any extra narrative or emotional push, though, the actors take the equivalent step up effortlessly. Right in step with them is director Christian Roulleau ’01, who paces every scene exquisitely, caring less about how real an exchange may be than about what will provoke the most intense emotional response in the audience. When he applies this philosophy to the show’s technical elements, however, the result tends towards the literal and obvious. The splendidly demented use of the Beauty and the Beast theme is one of the few examples that transcends this handicap.
Yet, when you get right down to it, the greatest flaw in this staging of The Pitchfork Disney is The Pitchfork Disney itself. The cast and crew find this problem to be largely surmountable, making it an off-beat and often disturbing success.