Profiles Performance Ensemble

at Red Bones Theatre

In Don Therriault’s play Battery the owner of Rip’s Electric puts his manic-depressive assistant Stan through a daily drill. It’s a ritual for the two men: Rip lists electrical terms, and Stan supplies their definitions. Rip expects Stan to define a battery as two or more cells placed in a common unit, one dominant–and that sets up the structure of this play about a control freak and what happens when he loses power.

The plot, a reworking of the Frankenstein myth, is ridiculous. Rip’s fix-it shop may be run-down, but Rip is a master electrician who designs fantastically complex electrical systems for rich people. When Stan becomes violent with Rip’s girlfriend Brandy, Rip decides to apply homemade electroshock therapy (“I never take anything in–I always fix it myself”). Miraculously, the treatments work, and Stan becomes not just a healthy, happy human being but also a near genius. Stan convinces the abused and cheated-on Brandy that she too deserves a better life, and the two of them ultimately shock Rip into changing from a man who only understands how things work to one who can ask why. But this comes with very little confrontation–all problems are resolved with a handshake and a kiss. And that makes for a very unsatisfying happy ending.

The play would be pure nonsense were it not for the intriguing new language Therriault has devised for his fantastical tale, language that both clarifies and differentiates the characters. For example, Rip delights the gloomy Stan with a tale of last night’s sexual exploits using the vocabulary of automobiles and electricity: the woman was well oiled, they grind gears, etc. There isn’t a single reference to a human characteristic. It’s the same stylized language Stan uses when he becomes violent. A second kind of language appears after Stan and Brandy break out of Rip’s control, as the two develop a language of their own, an intense word association that’s both sexual and spiritual.

The Profiles Performance Ensemble actors don’t seem very comfortable with this heightened style, and the sections of the play where it’s used fall a bit flat. The actors don’t quite seem to have a grasp on the lyrical quality of the words, which they treat naturalistically. Director Dawn McAndrews also seems most comfortable shaping everything realistically, and does nothing to help the actors find a way to make the stylized portions of the play stand out. Philip Lombard’s set and lighting are masterpieces of realism: a tiny, cluttered repair shop, every detail of which rings true, down to the faded girlie pinups. But this realism makes the moments that should be stylized even more disorienting. (The machine Rip uses to administer the shock therapy is particularly disappointing, considering what a fantastical idea it is.)

Still, actors Joe Jahraus as Stan and Darrell Christopher as Rip (who played Lee and Austin respectively in the company’s production of True West) work well together within the realistic framework they’ve been handed. Jahraus’s attention to detail makes him riveting to watch, even when the action is elsewhere. His character’s silent struggle is always clear, and his conversion to a chatty intellectual after the treatment somehow manages to be believable. Christopher unfortunately uses groin thrusts as a substitute for sexuality, and the annoying chuckle he developed for his role quickly wears thin. Still, he gives Rip a plausible caring side, and the scene in which he finally gives Stan the treatment is both powerful and tender. As Brandy, Mary Booker walks the fine line between white trash and a woman with great unfulfilled potential and gives the production some of the sexuality it needs. She also has a fantastic sense of timing, which allows her to create poignant moments out of very little.

Jean-Claude van Itallie’s Interview, being offered as part of Profiles’ “Dark Night Series,” is much more extreme in its stylization of both words and movement. First performed in 1965, it purports to be a look at the dehumanizing effect of the job-interview process. It is also an indictment of American society and the way it alienates the individual.

The work is not so much a play as a theatrical event. A creature of the 60s, van Itallie was heavily influenced by his work with the Open Theatre, which focused intensely on ritual. As a result the ritual of movement and language is integral to van Itallie’s work, and his stage directions are every bit as important as the text itself. For example, portions of Interview include lines in which each actor has one word of a sentence, and in between monologues strange activities occur–couples at a party begin eating food and end up eating each other. All of this is scripted by van Itallie, which both ensures that a production of his work will be visually stimulating and clues the production team in to the style of the work. Profiles Performance Ensemble has taken his direction and run with it.

The show begins as soon as you walk into the theater, when a half-masked performer hands you a program. The stage is the lobby, and four movable wooden blocks are the set. The four applicants of the play emerge from the audience.

Interview builds slowly from heightened reality to the absurd. It starts off with a structured interview between an applicant and his masked interviewer. More applicants and masked interviewers enter until the process becomes a dizzying dance, with the interviewers firing off questions faster than they can be answered and the interviewees desperately attempting to show the interviewers the person behind the resume. It all finally explodes, and then the actors emerge one by one to tell the tales of their alienation. Interview winds back down to the language of the opening interviews, but all of the performers are still tied together by the confusion and fear.

Director Ken Mitten’s ensemble works together wonderfully. The performers are all thoroughly focused on their motions and language. Particularly memorable are Diana Elizabeth Jordon playing a lonely street person pining over her mate, John David doing a monologue about a health-club instructor who’s desperate for a cigarette during class, and David Franks shifting attitudes like a chameleon.

Interview goes on too long–I found myself counting how many actors still had monologues to do. But it’s refreshing to see this kind of physically and intellectually challenging work being done by a group that has a handle on what it’s doing.