Coyote on a Fence

Shattered Globe Theatre

at Victory Gardens Theater

Bash: Latterday Plays

About Face Theatre

He who bears the brand of Cain shall rule the earth.

–George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah

By Albert Williams

The two central characters in Bruce Graham’s taut, thoughtful Coyote on a Fence are neighbors on death row in a southern prison, but otherwise they seem to have little in common. Middle-aged, quiet, well-educated John Brennan spends most of his time typing letters to his family and obituaries for the “Death Row Advocate,” the jailhouse newspaper he edits under the suspicious eye of prison authorities. A former drug- and alcohol-abuse counselor convicted of stomping a dope dealer to death, he’s spent ten years appealing his case–and seeking to turn public opinion against capital punishment.

Bobby Reyburn, meanwhile, is a killer and proud of it. An unapologetic white supremacist, this gimpy, gap-toothed young redneck set fire to a black church, murdering 37 parishioners–including 14 Sunday school kids–because they’d mocked him when he’d invaded their services to preach Aryan superiority. He freely admits he’s guilty as charged–but only “under Jew laws, not God’s.” After spending six years in solitary while his court-appointed lawyers appealed his death sentence, he’s decided to stop fighting and let the state kill him.

From John and Bobby’s evolving relationship–and their vastly different personalities–Graham spins a complex, credible drama that probes the subject of capital punishment without ever resorting to political preachments. Bobby’s decision to die upsets John more than Bobby’s crime. Though John is disgusted by Bobby’s racism, he also knows that this hate-mongering hillbilly has had a screwed-up life. The throwaway son of an alcoholic prostitute and a probable victim of fetal alcohol syndrome, Bobby was gang-raped at age 12 in a juvenile detention home; the attack left him with the shattered hip that still causes him to limp. The only person who ever cared for him was an uncle who taught him that white Christians are superior to “niggers, Jews, and mud people.” Shocked that Bobby’s psychological background was never introduced at trial, John sets out to stir up sympathy for him with the aid of a New York Times reporter–but his biggest obstacle is Bobby himself, who’s determined to die a martyr.

The conflict is sharpened by the fact that Bobby’s a pretty nice pup if you can forget about the crime he committed and ignore his racist rantings. When he’s not proclaiming himself a “Nietzschean superman,” he’s bouncing around his cell doing amusing animal impressions–a penguin, an elephant, a very funny iguana. And his earnest eyes make no attempt to hide his constant longing for affection and attention. Bobby is above all things honest–unlike John, who refuses to admit that he’s guilty of murder, perhaps because he thinks it would undermine his credibility as a spokesman against capital punishment.

Graham takes his inspiration from a newspaper article about James Beathard, a Texas convict who put out a death row newspaper in order to humanize society’s most demonized outcasts. (Beathard was executed in late 1999, almost two years after this play’s world premiere in Cincinnati.) Focusing not on issues but on emotions, Graham raises a slew of highly charged questions. Is murder an act of madness or evil–or a meaningless, arbitrary event in an absurd universe? Does Bobby–or anyone else–“deserve” to die? Is Bobby’s horrific crime any more barbaric than the cold-blooded taking of a life by the government? And finally, what purpose does capital punishment serve? Is it purgative, an outlet for the collective blood lust of a vengeful society? Or cautionary? Is making Bobby an example akin to his uncle’s habit, described in a climactic monologue, of sticking a dead coyote on a farmyard fence to scare away predators? Graham eschews easy answers because, as his characters’ interactions make clear, everyone who faces such questions draws upon a complex, unique, wholly subjective set of experiences.

Under the direction of Dado, who brings out in her cast the same intelligence and physical intensity that mark her performances as an actress, the Shattered Globe ensemble grounds the play’s philosophical inquiries in believable, moving characters. There’s not an ounce of pathos in Steve Key’s vital, limber portrayal of the physically and psychically crippled Bobby; Key’s straightforwardness and understatement are far more moving than any display of his character’s inner pain would be. Joe Forbrich is excellent as the seasoned warrior John, a man who finds the strength to fight endless legal battles yet stubbornly refuses to admit his own weakness. Solid support comes from Brian Pudil as the Times reporter and from Nadirah Bost as a tough black guard who must deal not only with hardened criminals but with ravenous reporters and clashing demonstrators. Scenic designer Kevin Hagen makes canny use of the small second-floor studio at Victory Gardens, placing prison bars across the front of the stage to create a sense of both intimacy and distance between the audience and the characters.

Neil LaBute’s Bash: Latterday Plays, offered in a well-acted, elegantly austere staging directed by Eric Rosen and designed by Darin Keesing, also focuses on murderers. Like Graham’s Bobby, the three killers in this program of monologues openly, if not always easily, admit their awful crimes: two infanticides and one gay bashing. Their confessions, peppered with references to ancient mythology, remind us that murder at once appalls and fascinates as a manifestation of human behavior at its most extreme–and its most basic.

The first two pieces are solos. In “Medea Redux,” a young woman sits coolly in a police interrogation room, speaking softly into a cassette recorder as the smoke of her cigarette spirals into the light above her. Her story, spoken with sly nuance by Louise Lamson, tells how at age 13 she was seduced by her teacher, who dropped her and left town when he learned she was pregnant. The vengeance she inflicts on her ex-lover–killing their child–will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Euripides’ Medea.

Another Euripidean tragedy, Iphigenia in Aulis, provides the model for “Iphigenia at Orem,” in which a Mormon businessman confides to a stranger in a hotel bar how he killed his infant daughter in order to “give me that little edge at work” and escape being fired during corporate restructuring. Actor Kyle Hall adopts an effective mixture of candor and shame, but this odd tale remains the least credible portion of the evening: Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia in order to win divine support for his expedition to Troy isn’t a believable contemporary reference point the way Medea’s revenge is.

The evening’s payoff comes with “Bash (A Gaggle of Saints).” The piece begins as a verbal duet for John and Sue, two attractive, affluent Boston College juniors recalling the weekend they came to New York for a party. At first Armando Riesco and Lisa Velten play off each other with perfect timing as they toss the story back and forth between them. But Sue recedes into the background when John takes charge of the narrative, telling how, while Sue got ready for their night on the town, he took a turn through Central Park, saw a gay couple embracing, and recruited some of his pals to ambush one of the men in a restroom, where they beat him to death. Describing the assault in clinical detail, John cites religious faith in his defense–“I know the Scriptures, and this is wrong.” But Riesco’s performance suggests a flood of conflicting emotions beneath John’s clean-cut, all-American surface–homosexuality both repulses and arouses him, and he found the murder physically exhilarating.

Just as Graham eschews political debate in Coyote on a Fence, LaBute steers clear of moralizing about gay bashing, letting his character’s complex motives speak for themselves. Like Graham’s Bobby, LaBute’s John, though repellent, is weirdly engaging in his candor; put aside the psychological or ideological factors behind these individuals’ acts, and the characters manifest a primal urge that fascinates in its defiance of morality or sociology. In them we see the killer instinct that has made us the dominant species on earth–and may very well bring us to extinction.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Suzanne Plunkett/John Flak.