It was rather fitting that on the night of the first presidential debate I found myself sitting in the audience, lean as it was, for The Echo Theater Company’s staging of Mary Laws’ Blueberry Toast.
Like The China Syndrome—the 1979 Jane Fonda thriller about corruption and safety cover-ups at a nuclear power plant, which was released 12 days before the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania—Blueberry Toast, in a similar display of serendipity, serves as a harbinger of another sort of meltdown.
It is an echo that precedes the deafening scream building to burst out our collective bosom, of which the debate itself was the first faint rumblings.
Producers Jesse Cannady and Chris Fields have gotten all their ducks in a row for this show.
Granted, they did need to nail their little webbed feet to the stage floor, because all the ducks involved in this evening are rabid and carrying chainsaws.
On a set half Ozzie and Harriet, half Pee-wee’s Playhouse, director Dustin Wills and playwright Laws introduce us to Walt (Albert Dayan) and Barb (Jacqueline Wright) who seem to be basking in suburbia bliss on a beautiful Sunday morning. As their adorable children Jack (Michael Sturgis) and Jill (Alexandra Freeman) announce at the breakfast table they’re gonna spend the day making a play, Walt and Barb indeed seem like the Poster Family for the American Dream.
But as filmmaker David Lynch has shown us repeatedly, under the most manicured lawn lurks viciousness and death.
From a slight confusion over the breakfast menu on Barb’s part, or perhaps a deliberate attempt at “gas lighting” Barb on Walt’s part, a fuse is lit that sends a saltpeter hiss hurrying spark to power keg.
From the blueberry toast, (or blueberry pancakes) to the abattoir walls splattered with bitterness, contempt, wrath, ego, betrayal, eggs, incriminations, disappointments, toast, wrath. loathing, blueberries and blood.
Lots of Blood.
Lots and lots of….
There’s nothing fresh about the structure of the play. “The escalating Climax,” where the conflict/event of the piece continuously builds until the inevitable as determined by the playwright; such as Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf which ends in love, Urned Happiness in a scream and a polka band, the musical Follies with a couple redeemed and a couple doomed.
The movies War of the Roses and Modern Romance both each follows the precise course of Blueberry Toast, though neither with such gleeful abandonment.
Though Laws has chosen a standard structure, the play is nevertheless crafted with intelligence and skill. Her dialogue is insightful, delivered with that constricted artificiality that comes when smothered truth is spoken.
She divides the rising conflicts of the piece by means of the children prancing into the kitchen to show their parents the progression of their play in progress which, like the rounds in a heavyweight prize fight, serves the purpose of allowing a cooling down before the flame is stoked hotter.
The wildness of this framing device expands in a madcap concert with the interior play making demands on Sturgis and Freeman that they handle with admirable panache.
As the naming of the offspring, “Jack and Jill” seem to reflect some undertone, I can’t but help to wonder if the parents’ names “Walt and Barb” were selected as a sardonic reference to Walt and Barb Larimore whose Christianized study of male/female neuro-psychology His Brain, Her Brain: How Divinely Designed Differences Can Strengthen Your Marriage is finding a reading audience among the nation’s church goers.
As the insufferable, philandering Walt, Dayan is solid, providing the perfect clarity for the chaos to come.
But the spine of the play is the character of Barb, and the support of this production is Jacqueline Wright’s intense and disturbing performance.
When a golf ball is sawed in half, the tightly wound bands of rubber at its center, once cut loose, erupt into a furious unraveling reminiscent of the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil on the warpath. Wright takes her metamorphosis into madness through a flurry of mutations; fragile innocent, lascivious succubus, tortured soul mate, vengeful banshee, marginalized victim of sexist manipulation to Zuni fetish doll.
She is the center of the storm that rages on the echo stage as well as the anchor that holds it to the intended course and meets each task superbly.
Wills’ direction is firm, though there’s a quiver now and then.
Towards the finale he seems to hint at moments plucked from Duel and Trilogy of Terror. Whether I am right or not in this assumption, both moments falter slightly, not because he may have plucked their inspiration from elsewhere, but because in the plucking he didn’t possess them.
Wills with Ahmed Best as his fight choreographer, has designed a tidy mayhem which, perhaps, is a bit too noticeably secure, but that would be a judgment call based on rehearsal.
To his credit Wills has gripped this tiger and, if not tamed it, at least has bent it to his will.
The Echo Theatre Company has made its mark in Los Angeles by picking smart works then staging them smartly, and this is certainly the case here.
Laws, in the program, notes reveals she came to this work after reading Tales of Ovid by the British poet Ted Hughes whose works are sometimes wrongly overshadowed by his being married to Sylvia Plath at the time of her suicide in 1963.
With that in mind, it is to Laws great credit what this play isn’t:
It isn’t a thinly masked rehashing of Hughes and Plath’s tempestuous relationship.
It isn’t a stale feminist diatribe on the ills of sexism in our society.
Laws goes deeper—deeper even than the monsters lurking among the blades of grass—and in doing so presents us with a very American take on Grand-Guignol, the French nineteenth century dramas surfeit with death and slaughter.
Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was nicknamed after the brutal Punch and Judy puppet show; an 1800’s version of slasher flicks, which hinted that, being puppets driven by some inner rage was, in fact, the human state.
“Oh, not me!” I hear the protests shouted, and that’s probably true.
Until someone cuts you off on the 405.
Whether the demons are the devil’s or Freud’s, or just remnants leftover from 2.5 million years of clinging to tree branches screeching in terror at the coming night; those furies born of fear exist in us all.
And now the insanity seems nearer the surface than at anytime in our recent history.
It was present on the stage of the first debate and can be seen at every Trump rally.
At his tragic death someone said of the comedian Sam Kinison,”At a time when there was nothing that could be done but scream, Sam screamed for all of us.”
Blueberry Toast rages for us all and, perhaps, Laws’ American “Theatre of the Great Puppet” is so disquieting because we fear “The Terror” is approaching.
Laws only hints at the causes that trigger her marathon of mayhem, leading us to suspect behind the slaughter there must be a tonnage of “last straws.”
At the end, we are left with only one motive for the carnage we have witnessed; an ending like that of any number of Agatha Christie’s novels which, while furnishing an unsatisfying explanation, manages still to be an undeniably and logical conclusion.
The culprit Laws reveals is not the butler: The culprit is life.
* * *
Blueberry Toast by Mary Laws
Directed by Dustin Wills
Through October 22nd at
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90039
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