Theater Oobleck

Last week I wrote, “You would be hard-pressed to find four more talented actors than those in Cardiff Giant’s original comedy, Love Me.” Well, this week I found five actors who certainly give them a run for their money: Lisa Black, Jeff Dorchen, Robin Harutunian, Mickle Maher, and Randy Herman, in Theater Oobleck’s sprawling new comedy, When Will the Rats Come to Chew Through Your Anus? Despite an ultimately unmanageable script, When Will the Rats Come succeeds by the sheer force of its furiously talented cast.

But I hardly want to insult the script, as it contains some of the most intelligent, creative, and powerful dramatic writing I have ever encountered. This wildly imaginative play, penned by Maher and Oobleck, is as ludicrous as it is lucid. It takes a potentially insipid premise–continuing the saga of Willard and Ben, the boy and rat made famous in films of the same names–and turns it into a thought-provoking examination of the ethical nature of man.

I won’t detail much of the story, as the play relies on constant surprises and plot twists. Willard (Maher), still as asocial and creepy as in his films, has become a cyborg technician, living in a huge house of his own design programmed to rearrange itself “at whim.” Everything in the house is imbued with artificial intelligence, so that Willard need only say “Lock!” and doors will lock, trapping his stir-crazy and desperately good-natured girlfriend Joan (Harutunian) inside. Also stranded in the house are Lucy (Lisa Black) and Peter (Randy Herman), an inexplicably married couple–she is a frighteningly stoic lunatic monomaniacal in her disgust at “homosexual and lesbian activity,” and he is a rodent exterminator and aspiring poet whose nose was chewed off in his crib by a rat. They were driven out of their own home by demonic creatures who kept attacking them. And Ben (Dorchen, in a raincoat with the hint of a tail sticking out) is now a six-foot rat, lurking undetected in Willard’s mazelike house. He’s bent on terrorizing its inhabitants despite his paradoxical love for Willard.

When Will the Rats Come is more than the silly send-up of a couple of dopey movies that lesser artists might have been tempted to create. Instead it opens up unresolvable questions about ethical responsibility. We see this first when Willard shows Peter two parrots, one real, one mechanical. Willard is trying to enhance the artificial intelligence of the mechanical bird by placing them both in the same room, where the real bird cries “Wolf!” over and over again. The mechanical bird must be constantly lied to, according to Willard, for it to understand deceit–and it must understand deceit if it’s to develop any ethical sensibility. “The same ethical sensibility,” he says, “so lacking in us.”

In this play full of atrocious actions carried out with the best of intentions, basic survival threatens to supersede moral considerations. In the most beautiful and provocative section of the play, Ben discourses about a kind of torture in which a cage of rats is strapped to the victim’s buttocks, causing the rats to chew through his anus. It’s not the rats that are culpable, Ben explains, but the humans who manufactured this horror.

In a sense, all of the characters become linked metaphorically to these caged rats–as Ben informs us, they don’t particularly relish chewing through someone’s anus, but under the circumstances they have little choice. Similarly, each character seems caught up in a particular mania that ultimately leads him or her to violent and reprehensible action. The important difference between the people and the rats is that the people have, figuratively, put themselves in their own cages.

Most impressive about this production is that all this heavy-duty philosophizing, which is rarely gratuitous or oppressive, goes on in the midst of a ripsnorting good time. I not only laughed, I howled. The humor here is so sharp, so crisp, so smart, that any college-educated self-important theater critic can feel comfortable busting a gut. The play is full of wonderfully inventive details and delightful sidetracks, my favorite, perhaps, being Willard’s cyborg wall–it is so intelligent that, even though it can roam freely, it chooses to stay put.

Finally, though, the play suffers from overdecoration. Much of the tangential action weighs the play down; this three-hour production left me feeling a bit sour and exhausted, as if I had eaten too much of a very rich dessert. Several scenes in the second act are tediously repetitive: the characters have split up and forge their separate ways through the house toward nothing in particular. And the characters of Lucy and Peter, though delightful in and of themselves, don’t seem to fit. Why, for instance, is Lucy so one-dimensionally antigay? Her homophobia seems arbitrary, and it’s not exploited thematically–indeed it seems to disappear late in the show, when she falls in love with Ben, who admittedly has had several boyfriends.

But through it all, the actors never fail to delight. Harutunian as Joan is full of intentionally obnoxious spunkiness. Though at moments of high emotion her acting seems a bit strained, her performance as a mechanical replica of herself in the second act is priceless. Herman gives Peter, a likable schlemiel but a rather thinly drawn character, impressive stature and fullness. Maher’s Willard is never forced, always nuanced, yet completely recognizable as caricature. Black’s Lucy is stunning, with a chillingly hilarious stone face.

Dorchen’s performance as Ben is worth the price of admission. His acting is effortless, his timing impeccable, and his portrayal of this misunderstood rat at once pathetic and terrifying. But most impressive is his truly threatening presence onstage, aided of course by the fact that his front paws have been replaced by two huge meat hooks. His Ben is dangerous–Dorchen pushes the character to a height few actors could have achieved.