Garage Rep Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf has been showcasing young local theater troupes in some version of its Visiting Companies Initiative since 1995. This year, three ensembles—Pavement Group, Dog & Pony, and XIII Pocket—have been selected to run pieces in repertory at Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre. They’re a well-chosen bunch. Even the most problematic work here (XIII Pocket’s Adore) is thought-provoking enough to be worth a look. Another piece (Dog & Pony’s The Twins Would Like to Say) is ungainly at times, but delightful in its inventiveness. And the third (Pavement Group’s Punkplay) is just right.
Adore Bernd Jurgen Brandes was a masochistic gay Berliner with an intense desire was to be castrated, executed, butchered like a pig in a slaughterhouse, and then eaten by his lover. Armin Meiwes was a would-be cannibal from Rotenburg, about 230 miles southeast of the capital. They met online in 2001, after Meiwes advertised for a “well-built man, 18–30, who would like to be eaten by me,” and helped each other realize their dovetailing fantasies (for which Meiwes, who has reportedly turned vegetarian, is now serving a life sentence). In this XIII Pocket production, writer-director Stephen Louis Grush explores the gruesome kismet of their relationship.
He does so without snickers or condemnation, framing Brandes and Meiwes as a couple of hopeless—if psychically damaged—romantics who’ve simply taken metaphors about love at face value. Theirs is a literally consuming passion; they want to become one, to possess and be possessed by each other in the most elemental sense. Brandes insists that there must be nothing left of him when Meiwes is done—he wants Meiwes to smash him to powder and breathe him in. And Meiwes, lovingly, pledges to “destroy” him.
Is that absurd or profound? Certainly, there are moments that point out the strangeness of the affair, as when Brandes and Meiwes meet for the first time after conducting breathlessly intimate negotiations online, and spend the ride to Meiwes’s abattoir-equipped house getting to know each other. There’s also some speculation from Meiwes on whether his pact with Brandes is a matter of fate or just a kink amplified into obsession by the astonishing opportunities for indulgence provided by the Internet. But overall, Grush allows his characters a deep seriousness. This is a story of outlaw love completed by death, just like Romeo and Juliet.
What it’s not is a story with lots of drama. We know the ending at the start, so there’s little narrative momentum. And Meiwes and Brandes are in complete sync as soon as they hook up, so there’s no tension to exploit. They don’t even face any external obstacles. They basically just make a deal and fulfill it. Grush gets interesting performances from Paige Smith as Brandes and Eric Leonard as Meiwes—both of whom project a startling normality—and he tries to pump up the spectacle with film images. But for all its appalling aspects, Adore gets dull fast.
The Twins Would Like to Say Like Adore, this beautiful, flawed Dog & Pony Theatre show is based on true and sensational events. Like Adore also, it concerns two people who become united by making a gift of their individuality to each other.
The people are June and Jennifer Gibbons, Barbados-born twins who grew up in Wales and, while still small, vowed to speak only to each other. By the time they were 14, in 1977, they were not only keeping that vow but creeping out classmates and adults alike by moving in slow, robotic unison.
Given journals, June and Jennifer started a kind of writing career, producing idiosyncratic, overwrought tales like “The Pugilist”—in which a boy with a bad heart receives a new one from his pet dog only to be possessed by the dog’s angry spirit—and “The Pepsi Cola Addict.” (Devon de Mayo, who cowrote and codirected The Twins with Seth Bockley, seems to have a thing for bizarre narratives by outsider artists: she also guided the development of Dog & Pony’s ensemble-devised As Told by the Vivian Girls, based on the writings of Henry Darger.) The shit hit the fan when the twins started setting fires and were remanded to Broadmoor psychiatric hospital, where they spent the next 14 years.
Bockley and de Mayo stick close to the known facts of the twins’ lives prior to their incarceration but don’t stop with simple biography. They take us inside June and Jennifer’s often turbulent mind-meld—a universe populated by living dolls, a pal called Mr. Nobody, and, of course, the characters in their stories, which are performed in a long passage that’s hugely entertaining even though Bockley and de Mayo haven’t figured out how to fit it into the structure of the show.
The entire cast is deft, but Paige Collins and Ashleigh LaThrop are something special as June and Jennifer, communicating their collusions and competitions, seductions and rejections, love and hate with a whole vocabulary of physicalizations (at least some of which they owe to Dan Stermer’s very cool choreography). I hope Bockley and de Mayo will reconsider the promenade format they’ve adopted for this production. Although I understand its function as an alienation device, I experienced the gimmick of moving the audience around a divided space—having us stand here, sit there, or form a line—as a nuisance.
Punkplay This Pavement Group show is the most conventional of the three Garage Rep entries—no cannibals or semi-telepathic twins, no film or promenading—but also the most fully realized and enjoyable. Gregory Moss’s tale focuses on Mickey (not unlike amiable, innocent Mickey Mouse) and his pal Duck (as in domineering, argumentative Donald), a couple of middle-class American teenage boys growing up in the 1980s. Though he’s a decade late for the revolution, Duck has gone punk with a vengeance and been kicked out of the house by his dad. Mickey, whose own parental situation seems a bit uncertain, lets Duck crash at his house—for maybe nine months—and gets swept along in the slipstream trailing Duck’s mohawk. If you wanted to stretch the consumed lover/merged twin motif, you could say Duck absorbs Mickey. But the results are comparatively easy to take. And neither of the other plays offers anything like the sweet wisdom of Punkplay‘s closing speech, delivered by a subversive LP. This is a canny coming-of-age play, as sharp as it is charming.
David Perez’s high-energy production has wit enough to match Moss’s script, starting with a set design by Grant Sabin that parodies the old-style labeling for generic grocery items. Matt Farabee is endearingly normal and Alexander Lane endearingly spazzy as Mickey and Duck, respectively, while Tanya McBride masters various roles, including that of a fuckable Ronald Reagan.