Tangent Theatre

at Puszh Studios

In his first works for the stage, filmmaker William Haugse offers two one-acts that consider the secular aspects of salvation and damnation–potentially intriguing meditations on age-old questions. Unfortunately, the plays ramble in too many different directions to offer much of the insight that they are so obviously meant to deliver.

In the first play, Salvation, JJ wakes up on his couch clothed in a Japanese bathrobe and paint-speckled pants and begins to offer a litany of parables directly to the audience. From the beginning he acknowledges the fact that he is in a play, even setting an alarm clock for the time he claims the action will end. His tiresome rants (often punctuated with lines like “I hope you have an aisle seat so you can leave” and “This could be embarrassing”) are interrupted by KK, a woman who appears to be his lover. We learn from their exchange that JJ believes he is Jesus Christ, and that the two met in a park at four in the morning a year or so before and have been together ever since. We learn that their meeting may have saved KK from a life of prostitution. And eventually we learn–along with JJ–that KK is being paid to look after him by his sister, and that she is planning to leave him for a more stable man. This news brings JJ close to a nervous breakdown, and it is up to KK to save him.

The story might be quite moving if Haugse concentrated on character instead of gimmicks. After establishing JJ as timekeeper for half the play, even having him call out the minutes remaining from time to time, Haugse inexplicably abandons the device about two-thirds of the way through. JJ’s acknowledgement of the audience also has no clear function in the play except to excuse his numerous monologues. All the dross keeps JJ’s character from ever developing beyond the cliche of a mad, misunderstood genius. He’s full of tears and anguish, but we don’t know enough about his character to care.

Haugse himself as JJ pummels the thin character into a histrionic mush reminiscent of Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. His unfortunate habit of constantly putting his hands in his hair, on his beard, or completely over his face make him difficult to take seriously. Darlene Hunt’s performance is also held back by bad stage habits. Her clear but needless affected southern accent (her background is never revealed) serves no apparent purpose; are we supposed to take it as evidence of a “white trash” background?

Damnation, the second offering, is even more disappointing. This absurdist revision of Adam and Eve is by turns painfully obvious and pretentiously confusing. At the outset Dustin (made from dust, get it?) is searching for the bits to his power drill to fix an electrical problem. Veronica, his mate, says she’s going out for a walk. Dustin, nervous because sometimes she doesn’t come back for days, protests. But Veronica ignores him, and after she leaves he composes a rhyming letter to the editor of an unknown newspaper. Then, seized with a chill, he tries to start a fire in the living room. When Veronica returns, Dustin gets her to admit that she has been visiting “the Interior,” where she has come upon a great tree. Going through her purse, Dustin is shocked to find an apple. He must then figure out what to do about Veronica’s dangerous behavior.

Once again, Haugse dilutes the story with pointless action and rambling dialogue. Dustin’s letter writing, possibly a funny obsession that would reveal something about his character, is never mentioned after Veronica’s return, and his attempt to start a fire is nothing more than an unsuccessful joke. Their dull exchanges rely heavily on the joke that they are Adam and Eve (Dustin mentions how Veronica’s habit of bringing home snakes bothered him until he began cooking “snake steak”). John Forsythe as the nervous Dustin and Darlene Hunt as the spacey troublemaker Veronica give undistinguished performances, both bursting into inexplicable bouts of screaming several times during the play.

Perhaps Haugse’s primary experience as a filmmaker accounts for some of his problems as a playwright. At one point in Salvation JJ says, “This isn’t like a movie. This is real, this is really happening.” Haugse seems to be under the delusion that because theater is live, it is naturally believable and effective. But to make his plays truly believable, he needs to apply himself more to the essential elements of good theater: story and character. Everything else is vanity.