Shattered Globe Theatre

Playwright Stephen Serpas has a pulp fiction writer’s gift for creating twisted, vivid characters: politically committed sex goddesses, polymorphous perverse FBI agents, cracked old coots with strange urban tales to tell. True, many of them are just a gesture or two away from dreadful cliches. The New England-accented narrator of Dogtown, for example, sounded for all the world like Pepperidge Farm’s version of Our Town’s Stage Manager. And the libidinous Lulu-like protagonist of the sci-fi thriller Green Air, Angeline, strutted around like some 90s edition of Barbarella in miniskirt and fuck-me pumps (free to do you and me!), a fantasy of the undomesticated urban woman at least as old as the earliest Vargas pinups.

These comic book-ish characters come with Serpas’s pomo turf, however: the high-art recasting of distinctly subliterary genres–science fiction, B movies, detective novels, mystery thrillers. And despite Angeline’s sexist ways, she was also a fascinating creature, full of enough tricks and surprises to keep her interesting even when Serpas’s story telling flagged: ironically enough, what was lacking in Dogtown and Green Air was the very thing most pulp has in spades–a story strong enough to grab an audience and keep it.

But in Harvestide, Serpas’s latest play, he has a story, and he sticks to it, more or less, from beginning to end. He doesn’t have much choice. The genre he’s plundering this time is detective fiction, in which the (often formulaic) story is so tightly bound to the stock characters that as soon as you start introducing, say, the down-on-his-luck detective, the dame who falls for him and turns out to be enmeshed in the crime, or his former friend at the police station you automatically have plot twists.

Serpas’s tale naturally begins with a bizarre murder: a young druggie is burned to death behind the Museum of Science and Industry, which leads our hero–a frumpy dick named William Michalski–into the middle of a turf war between opposing pagan sects, one Wiccan, the other Satanist. You need more than neo-pagans, however, to make the well-worn detective genre seem new again: witches and ritual murders have been detective-story motifs ever since the psychedelic 60s and the Tate-LaBianca murders.

This is where Serpas’s gift for creating intense, eccentric characters comes in. He doesn’t just give us a detective, he gives us the long-lost leader of the good-guy pagans. He doesn’t just give the detective a girlfriend, he gives him a whore who turns into a coyote. A few scenes later, when our hero’s estranged wife reappears after being turned into a coyote herself, she is horrified at being turned back into a boring human being. A gay character belongs to an organization, Queers Without Borders, that’s experimenting with intergalactic astral projection. The cruel police detective has a mute sidekick. And did I mention that much of the story is narrated by the ghosts of the murdered characters?

For one whole act Serpas dances on that wild, tricky Almodovar-ish edge and never falls into total self-indulgence, thanks in no small part to the show’s ensemble. Steve Key, Linda Reiter, Brian Pudil, and Jim Saltouros (as our hero) all play their characters to the hilt. Rebecca Jordan–great as Stella in Shattered Globe’s A Streetcar Named Desire–really shows her stuff here, doing double duty as Michalski’s lycanthropic girlfriend and as the witchy leader of the Satanists. And Joe Forbrich is utterly believable as the police detective who’s increasingly suspicious that our hero is behind the recent rash of ritual murders.

Nothing prepared me for Eileen Niccolai’s amazing performance as Michalski’s wife, however. I’ve known Niccolai mostly for her mousy, hausfrau-ish roles–the Kowalskis’ gossipy neighbor, a forgettable family member in A View From the Bridge–but from now on, whenever I see her I’ll think of her stalking across the stage, one leg crossing in front of the other, half coyote, half human, hungry for love or meat, we aren’t really sure which until she pounces on her prey, the hapless police sidekick.

Sadly, Serpas still doesn’t know when to stop. Long after he should have let his story play itself out he’s still adding strange characters and plot twists, until halfway through the second act his story (and the audience) collapses out of sheer exhaustion. In this way Harvestide is closer to Pedro Almodovar’s more annoying recent films, like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, than to his wonderfully funny, perverse farce Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. We watch the last 15 minutes of Harvestide without enjoyment or belief. We only wait, as we waited in Dogtown and Green Air, for the mess to end so we can go home.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Roger Smart.