Cemetery Man and Don’t You Ever Call Me Anything But Mother
Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Open Fist Theatre Company
Through May 30
The second in a set of two one-person plays, John O’Keefe’s Don’t Ever Call Me Anything But Mother may be that unique monologue that is literally unlike anything you’ve witnessed before — though whether it will beguile or appall you really depends on your mood and ability to deal with creepy darkness. Ostensibly about a crazy old woman (fearlessly and compellingly played by Tina Preston), who rattles about her filthy, empty apartment, this mesmerizing yet disturbing piece is by turns unnerving and hilarious.
You know when you’re walking down the street, and you see an unfortunate madman or madwoman muttering on the corner? Before you cross to avoid him or her (or before you give a dollar if you’re rather nice), you may spare a thought as to what their lives are like or how they live at home. Here’s a show that depicts, with little sentimentality but lots of pathos, just how that mad person might live and what might have made her the way she is.
In a filthy nightdress and stained robe, elderly Doris (Preston) shambles onto the stage, her eyes a-bugging, her tongue a-wagging, no lower teeth in her mouth, rambling and ranting about wrongs done her over the years. While searching for her son, she tosses belongings all over the floor, showering silverware, dirty laundry, old food, and cans of beer onto the stage. Before long, though, her character has downed a half dozen beers, thrown up in the back bathroom, and dressed herself in clown make up before writhing on the floor in rhapsodic memory of her long-ago love. Is she insane or just haunted? What brought all this about? Here is a performance that feels genuinely dangerous and unpredictable, but which is also almost touching in the power of its depiction of human debasement and breakage.
The direction is credited to O’Keefe and to Jan Munroe, but so much of Preston’s astonishing performance appears to be based on reactive improvisation. The sense that anything can happen on stage is omnipresent and unnerving: On the evening I attended, one of the pictures fell off the wall and shattered. The performer still staggered around the wreckage, acting as if that incident was just one more ingredient in the filthy flotsam of her life. Preston’s performance is terrifyingly natural, but the stagecraft and smoothness of her transitions bely a facile technique: What seems simple is really deep and full of complex nuance and choice. It’s a truly fascinating production.
Also on the bill is playwright Ken Jenkins’ rather more conventional Cemetery Man, in which a grizzled gravedigger (Bruce Dickinson) who has spent his life laboring at an isolated country graveyard, opines that he is soon to be replaced by an automatic backhoe digger. As he downs liquor from his pocket flask, and pulls out his rifle to take pot shots at the parked backhoe, he chronicles his memories of the townsfolk he’s buried, and mourns the human touch that will be gone when he’s forcibly retired. Jenkins’ script is a fairly straightforward tale of time passing and about how the “good ole ways” are being replaced by soulless efficiency. Director Amanda Weier’s nicely atmospheric staging conveys the sense of a quiet graveyard after midnight. Davidson’s grumpy old coot of a gravedigger is charming, but the play itself is slight and sketch-like.
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave, Atwater; Tues-Wed., 8 p.m.; through May 30. (323) 882-6912 or www.openfist.org. Running time: 2 hours with an intermission.
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