Remains Theatre

Take my arm, take my leg

Aw, baby, don’t ya take my head . . .

We all need someone we can bleed on

And if you want it baby

Well, you can bleed on me . . .

–Rolling Stones

The bloodshed in Once in Doubt is imaginary. If it were simulated, it would be unwatchable; if it were real, it would be fatal. But just because it’s imaginary doesn’t mean it isn’t true. To an artist, imagination is reality; if the artist succeeds in reaching his audience, his imagined reality becomes theirs too.

So we don’t need to see the gushing red fluid when Harry–the manic-depressive abstract-expressionist-painter hero of Remains Theatre’s viscerally powerful, blisteringly funny new show–slashes his arm with a thick chunk of broken bottle and smears his blood all over a canvas. Or, later, when he smashes an overhead light and walks barefoot through the shards of glass. In this magnificently acted production, the sheer intensity of belief and the physical precision with which that belief is expressed are enough to convince us of the agonizing action. We don’t need to see the blood to feel it flowing.

The same is true of the blood that flows in the battle between Harry and his live-in lover Flo, whose curse is to love an artist while not being an artist herself. Their battle is almost entirely verbal; she pounds his shoulders in frustration a couple of times, and once he bites her toes, but those assaults are trivial. The real punches Flo and Harry throw at each other are psychic, and they hurt. Bad. You can take my arm and leg, baby, but don’t ya take my head.

If any couple ever needed each other to bleed on, it’s Harry and Flo (whose names evoke archetypal male and female sexual characteristics). Their mutual dependency is a sore point between them; they resent it like hell, just as they resent any suggestion that they put some distance between them. They resent it when they don’t flatter each other’s looks, and when they do. They resent the isolated exclusivity of their relationship, and they resent it when another person enters the scene. And they express their resentment–their fear, their passion, their anxiety, their distrust, their love–in a scathing torrent of in-jokes and insults.

Like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? performed by Talking Heads, or an Akbar and Jeff cartoon as drawn by Vincent Van Gogh the moment before he sliced off his ear, Once in Doubt takes the confusions and contradictions of a long-term relationship and squeezes them into one clenched, cutting burst of horror and hilarity. Playwright Raymond J. Barry compresses the words of love and hate tossed back and forth by two longtime lovers over the years into barely 90 minutes, creating an absurdist explosion of pure emotion. Its illogic and disharmony are what make the play ring true; paring away the mundane filler of his characters’ daily life, Barry crystallizes the unbearably intense feeling that makes these lovers fight as hard as they fuck.

As Harry makes his “death creation,” adding to the smeared blood such objects as Brillo pads and cat-food cans to symbolize the detested and desired domesticity of his life with Flo, the couple tease and taunt each other–laughing in lusty memory of a famous bath they once shared, sarcastically trading happy-homemaker cliches, declaring their love and loathing in a cross fire of confessions and complaints. “I wish something exciting would happen . . . that someone exciting would drop by,” says Flo. And someone does: Mr. Wagner, a neighbor curious about the noise. Mr. Wagner may not know art but he knows what he likes, and he likes Flo. Just what the relationship needs: new blood.

Blood is the central metaphor in this deeply personal reflection on the anguish, risk, and endless dissatisfaction of making art that comes from the heart. Tellingly, the imaginary white canvas onto which Harry pours his life fluid is the invisible “fourth wall” that separates actors and audience. Once in Doubt is very much about the theater at its most elemental–the transference of energy from performer to viewer. Barry, a superb actor whose credits include stints with the Living Theater and the Open Theater, wrote Once in Doubt as a vehicle for himself; but for this production he’s shifted into the role of director, guiding Remains actors William Petersen and Amy Morton into the most powerful work I’ve seen from either of them. Morton, jagged and sexy in a tight black cocktail dress from under which flashes an occasional glimpse of ruffled red panties, infuses the comic quirkiness and razor-sharp timing she used so effectively in Big Time and Puntila and His Hired Man with seemingly limitless reserves of longing and fury. Petersen, clad in loose-fitting black T-shirt and blue jeans, gives his most effective performance since his head-banging In the Belly of the Beast nearly a decade ago. While this role lacks the psychological nuances of that one, under Barry’s direction it offers Petersen’s best-ever balance of physical and emotional force. As Harry painting his bloody canvas, Petersen creates an image of exquisite strength and delicacy, stalking along the edge of the stage with catlike grace and making precisely focused little shakes with his upraised, bleeding arm, like a dancer partnering an invisible lady in a macabre minuet.

Gerry Becker’s Wagner, though not nearly as hunky or rough-edged as the part is written, makes a serviceable toy for Harry and Flo’s whiskey-fueled game of Get the Guest. Kevin Snow’s brightly lit white set is nearly bare, except for a couple of pieces of furniture and a pair of cans whose label–“paint”–sometimes reads, equally accurately, “pain.” It’s the perfect arena for performances whose stamina, concentration, and grace combine the appeal of a sporting event with poetically vivid, emotionally revealing theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.