Thunder Road Ensemble

at Prop Theatre


at Cafe Voltaire

Peter V. seduces young women not with money or drugs but with spiritual affirmation: by assuring neglected adolescents that they’re pretty and popular enough to be cheerleaders–high accolades in their parlance–and that their femininity holds the key to life itself, he persuades them that their existence depends solely on his selfless love. The young women who dwell in the squalid rooms of Peter’s condemned building therefore make no attempt to escape their unlocked prison but wait in dazed suspense for the moment when Peter will grace them with his presence–usually accompanied by the customers he calls “husbands,” who seek comfort and affection from their “wives” after a weary day at the office.

Ontological Proof of My Existence has all the potential for melodrama–a runaway teenager, Shelley, falls into prostitution at the encouragement of the charismatic Peter V., whereupon her doting father comes to fetch her home–but playwright Joyce Carol Oates is not interested in TV-movie fables. Peter V., who claims to have been reborn at the age of 25, takes the name of Pyotr Verkhovenski in Dostoyevski’s The Possessed. Shelley seems a penitent in her cell, and she has certainly mortified her flesh in obedience to her “messiah”–her hair has been shorn and her body starved to prepubescent thinness, ostensibly to accommodate the “husbands” who prefer their “wives” ambisexual. But this androgyny is also our culture’s fashion ideal. And as we listen to Shelley’s father rhapsodize over old family photographs, it becomes apparent that he too has idealized girlhood.

It’s thus perversely understandable that Shelley should refuse her father’s sentimental pleas and stay with the exploitive Peter: he promises absolution for the sin of being imperfectly, insignificantly human. Peter shrugs off any guilt, saying that his is the logical response to the times. “We are the true Americans, the true talent,” he declares. “Everything in this city is falling. People like myself have only to stoop to pick up prizes.” And if those prizes include disoriented children who “can’t determine the limitations of their own bodies unless someone is always embracing them,” so be it.

It’s not a pretty picture of our society, and it’s rendered all the more disturbing by the sweet-faced James Schneider’s portrayal of Peter V. as a thoroughly charming serpent. His ingenuous admiration of the preening Shelley almost wins us over–until he asks a gentleman in the audience what he’ll pay for her and we realize we’ve been listening to a sales pitch. So does his rational behavior in the face of Shelley’s hyperemotional giddiness and her father’s ludicrous ineffectuality (“an old god,” Peter calls him). These thankless roles are played by Marjorie Tatum, who brings a manic coquetry to the pitiful Shelley, and Jerry Phalen, who is subtly sinister instead of the conventional “good parent.” Under the deft direction of Deborah King, Thunder Road’s production offers a riveting criticism of the universe we have ourselves created and continue to support, though we may shudder at its more overt manifestations.

In Masks a young woman talks about recovering from the trauma of rape at the hands of anonymous thieves–who murdered as well as raped her best friend–by joining up with a traveling show that features women dressed in gorilla suits wrestling in giant fruit pies. The physical and spiritual injuries suffered by Deni, the protagonist in this one-woman show, are as common these days–sad to say–as the means to her rehabilitation are bizarre. But the delicate imagery of Brian Gary Kirst’s script and Tina Steele’s robustly kinetic delivery–assisted by several Emil Nolde-inspired masks and a few Mummenschanz-like props–make it all seem as plausible as it is entertaining. To trade an uncomfortable disguise for a less cumbersome one, as Shelley does in Ontological Proof, may offer some small relief; but to announce, as Deni does, “My days of dress-up are done” produces an elation to which those of us wearing the necessary masks of civilization can only aspire.