White Noise

at Stage Left

Frank is a bio-maintenance disposal engineer for a genetics laboratory. That means he takes the unsuccessful experiments–many of them still alive–and throws them into the incinerator. Most of them, that is. A childlike, possibly retarded man, Frank has made pets of a few, hiding them in his corner of the GenetiCo basement. These include Stumpy, so called because he has no arms, only a primitive hand protruding from one side, and Gristle, a creature resembling a skinned and scalped composite of Ollie the dragon, Farfel the dog, and Cecil the sea serpent. With the assistance of his critters, Frank stages little private shows, reminiscent of the early television programs he remembers so fondly, during his lunch hour.

The newest member of the cast is Booger, who consists almost entirely of a periscope eye and a ventral vagina with a prehensile clitoris through which she feeds. On this day Booger turns on her savior, eating Frank’s entire hoard of Twinkies, his obnoxious coworker, his intimidating supervisor, and eventually the whole world. In despair at the Frankenstein he has created, Frank commits suicide, climbing into his own fiery furnace at the beckoning of a clown-host mentor. A video then shows Frank entering heaven–labeled Frank’s Show, and populated by such angels as Froggy Gremlin, Kukla and Ollie, Howdy Doody, and of course, Stumpy and Gristle.

Stumpy’s Gang . . . A Comic Mutation is being promoted by White Noise as a comedy–albeit a black one–but unless you find the mutilation of small, helpless things by bigger, stronger things funny (in which case you probably loved “Mr. Bill”), you won’t find many laughs here. Don’t be fooled by the cute puppets in the smiley photographs–the violence in this show goes beyond the usual Punch-and-Judy slapstick, with graphic depiction of impalement, immolation, and severed heads, and gallons of spurting blood that splashes within inches of the audience’s feet. Think twice before bringing the kids, too–I’m a 42-year-old Army veteran, and I had nightmares after seeing this play.

Playwright and director Pat Cannon is interested in more than a jolly good gross-out, however. Stumpy’s Gang is a no-punches-pulled commentary on the corruption of power: the national kind practiced by oppressive governments and corporations like GenetiCo, whose slogans echo Hitler’s, the social kind by which Frank is bullied by his fellow employees, and the domestic kind enacted within families. As a child, Frank was abused by his mother–as he instructs Stumpy, “A mommy is somebody who yells at you and smacks you a good one when you’re bad, and smacks you again and again.” This abuse is passed on in Frank’s treatment of Stumpy and Gristle (who look doubly vulnerable for being embryonically wrinkled and naked pink). Even Stumpy begins to pass it on, scolding and striking his toy rabbit. The only salvation for any of them lies with Lawanda, the black janitor who introduces Stumpy to the notion that a mommy is a loving, caring someone. (She finally escapes with Stumpy tucked under her arm like a baby–after Stumpy has given his beloved rabbit to the cringing and terrifed Frank. I wanted to cry.)

Stumpy’s Gang is no easier to play than it is to watch. Stumpy and Gristle must have all the cutesy mannerisms of their kiddy-show forebears, and the pacing and tempo of the dialogue must parallel exactly those of pre-Sesame Street kidvid, if the maximum horror is to result when the action suddenly takes a Stephen King turn.

The grotesquely ursine Jim O’Heir adds a new dimension to the role of the enfant terrible with his uninhibited and enthusiastic portrayal of Frank, who will break your heart even as he turns your stomach. Shaun Landry (on loan from the Underground Theater Conspiracy) brings strength and conviction to the role of Lawanda, the post-holocaust Madonna, and Jeff Johnson is suitably repulsive as Chuck, who was born to be offed. Highest praise, however, goes to the three unseen operators–Pat Cannon, Ned Crowley, and Jordan Polansky, who make Stumpy, Gristle, and Booger into distinct characters with individual personalities. (“But you wouldn’t want to take one home,” said one audience member. His companion answered, “You would if you knew them long enough.”) Credit is also due to Tom Trucco and Gendy Tartakovsky, whose imaginative videos blend live action with animation and authentic footage from late-50s children’s shows to make up as professional an Olympian chorus as any in classical drama.

Stumpy’s Gang is not perfect by any means. There’s something discomfiting about a play in which Germans are equated with Nazis, and which has as its villain a devouring vagina with teeth–one gets the feeling that these things were not central to Cannon’s purpose. Cannon seems to be striving to say something significant and thought provoking about the psychopathology of our times, however, and his success is not as important as the attempt to go beyond the facile formulas. It may sound strange to say that I liked Stumpy’s Gang because it made me sick, but–well, let me put it this way: the play finished at 9:30, and at 1 AM, the folks at the bar next door were still discussing it. Could you imagine that happening with Pump Boys and Dinettes?