By ANTHONY CHASE
REVIEW: Mercury Fur
By ANTHONY CHASE
“In-Yer-Face” is a young person’s theatrical form. Associated with playwrights like Sarah Kane (Blasted, 1995), Anthony Neilson (Penetrator, 1993), and Mark Ravenhill (Shopping and Fucking, 1996), in-yer-face emerged in the 1990s when a wave of very young, mostly British playwrights began writing shockingly vulgar and violent plays to provoke, involve, and entertain their largely young audiences.
In Buffalo, Torn Space Theater has taken on Sarah Kane, but now, Subversive Theatre enters the arena with Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur, which certainly fits into the in-yer-face category. Set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic version of London, in the play, a gang of young men make a living by selling hallucinogenic butterflies and arranging parties where wealthy clients live out their depraved fantasies.
On this occasion, the fantasy involves torturing and killing a Pakistani child Elvis impersonator who wears a gold lamé suit and sings “Love Me Tender.” When the plan goes awry, the characters must decide how far they are willing to go, where basic survival ends, and where love and loyalty begin.
I found the Subversive Theatre production, directed by Michael Doben, to be thrilling. Part of the impulse toward in-yer-face would certainly seem to be an inter-generational confrontation. This is a case of “not your father's theater,” with young artists asserting themselves in a way that makes maximum impact. “We’re here and we’re taking over the theater!” I imagine this was part of what motivated William Shakespeare when he made his London debut in the 1590s with bloody and shocking Titus Andronicus, the bold gesture that inspired Robert Greene to call Shakespeare an “upstart crow.”
The upstart crows at Subversive Theatre, many of whom are recent or current college students, are making a formidable and enthusiastic impact with a production that is detailed, engaging, and deliciously shocking.
Matthew B. Cullen and Zach Thomas play brothers Elliot and Darren. Elliot is the brains of the operation, largely because he is older, but also because the younger brother’s addiction to the mind-altering butterflies has seriously deteriorated his memory. While the two are setting up for their party in an abandoned apartment, they encounter Naz, a teenager who lives down the hall.
Naz, played with winning guilelessness by Lucas Colon, has lost his family to grotesque gang violence, which he witnessed. He is a butterfly addict who clings to his past life through the only surviving photo of his mother and sister. Fabulous in the role, Colon gives an energetic and endearing performance as the socially clueless but loving youth, who craves approval and connection.
In this inverted world, the boys seem inured to violence, which, at times, they confuse with affection. While preparing for the party, Darren forms a bond with Naz, who is sincere and charming and wants them to be “mates.”
There are a number of significant pairings among the characters, which director Doben articulates clearly. Elliot is hurtfully abusive towards Darren, but also clearly loves him. Cullen and Thomas play this very effectively, making good use of their difference in stature. Cullen, whose character limps and views the world as a series of life and death choices, successfully imbues the man with overbearing authority belied by an undercurrent of fear. It is a precarious combination, critical to the play’s resolution.
Thomas’ youthful appearance is contradicted by the maturity of his acting. He lands his lines with precision and explores his character’s complicated intentions with impressive nuance.
In a second pairing, Darren, the younger brother, quickly forms a bond with orphaned Naz, whose memory is only slightly better than his own. They share a yearning for human bonding.
When Elliot’s transgender girlfriend, Lola enters, relationships shift. Lola makes the costumes and does the makeup for the parties, but she does not stay around for them and she elicits a promise from Elliot that Naz is not to be hurt. With that gesture, the key conflict of the play is in place. We know that "something’s gotta give" and that it’s going to give with a bang. Jeremy Catania is brilliant in the role, accentuating the character’s ambiguous gender through gesture and costume and eyelashes.
The final pairing of the script is between the gang’s leader, Spinx, played by Zachary Bellus and Duchess, played by Justyne Harris. Spinx, who is Lola’s brother, is violent and belligerent. The others fear him. Still, he believes that everything he does is for their benefit. Bellus gives the role a fierce performance, convincingly interrupted by a flash of insecurity when the others concur that he has gone too far.
Duchess is blind and lives in terror, often confusing her own life with the story of Maria in The Sound of Music, a humorously recurring and unlikely reference in this play. She takes comfort in the attentive custodianship of Spinx and in the delusion that she is an aristocrat. From their first entrance, in costumes provided by Brenna Pather, whose work is excellent throughout, Bellus and Harris strike an iconic figure: he, looking like a Russian oligarch; she, looking like a Tennessee Williams heroine. The characters overlap with the others in ambiguous ways, fueled by their combination of reality and fiction.
As Duchess, Harris has vagueness down to a science. In a solid and confident performance, she wistfully and graciously allows herself to be guided through the squalor of Emily Powrie’s set, compellingly fluctuating between the regal and the pathetic. Bellus partners her with earnest devotion, between the flashes of tyrannical monstrousness he directs at everyone else.
The other characters, referred to only as Party Guest and Party Piece, are the client whose fantasy is to be realized and his victim. Vinnie DeStefano plays the former with terrifying enthusiasm, delving into his character’s sadism with disturbing fervor. As the only character with the means by which the others might escape their situations, Party Guest is the object of undeserved respect; DeStefano helps make this dynamic all the more disturbing by creating a man of unmitigated and unredeemable evil.
When this play was announced, those familiar with the script asked, “Where will they find a ten-year old Pakistani boy? The answer turns out to be, “They won’t.” Enter Helen Rose, a diminutive UB undergraduate who, while inappropriate for the role, takes it on with admirable catalepsy.
Kurt Schneiderman’s extreme lighting design is excellent. Frightening fight choreography by Shelby Converse is exciting and convincing. The sound design by John Shotwell is very good and adds a harrowing element to the proceedings.
At over two hours without intermission, this production is running a little long, but is easy to take in, even when the action is hard to watch. I have noted that Buffalo’s short rehearsal periods preclude performances that open with crisp and rapid efficiency, resulting in a tendency to savor, rather than to deploy dense and fleeting language.
In the final analysis, however, this is an impressively successful showcasing of new talent with a challenging vehicle. This play has a history of huge controversy and walkout audiences, especially when it first opened in England. While the piece is palpably disturbing, I am impressed by the poetry in its profanity and in its overwhelming message that humans, no matter how apocalyptic our circumstances, essentially need love.
Performances continue at the Manny Fried Playhouse through February 8th. Thu-Sat at 7:30. Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave., third floor (462-5549). www.subversivetheatre.org