KPBS AIRDATE: NOVEMBER 3, 1994
The peacock screams, all right. And so does everyone else. But this is Sledgehammer Theatre, being true to its name. Their latest venture is a bit off their well-trod path. It’s not their first world premiere, but it is their first play by a woman and about a woman. Artistic director Scott Feldsher is newly returned from his year out and about, cavorting with some of the country’s top directors. But he hasn’t lost his flair for the absurd. Or his obsession with violence.
It’s a well-known adage in theater that, when the script is vivid and descriptive, you don’t need theatrical tricks to create moments best left to the imagination. Since the time of the Greeks, most of the gore has wisely occurred offstage; the gruesome was worse in the imagining and unnecessary, even redundant, in the actual display. Hollywood has yet to learn this lesson. Ditto Sledgehammer.
In Los Angeles playwright Kelly Stuart’s harrowing story, Anne is spiraling downhill, dying of breast cancer. Her life, her body, her past — are all totally out of her control. She is manipulated and abused — by her boss, her parents, her young friends, her lover. Everyone wants a piece of her, but nobody really wants her. She can’t seem to succeed at anything, least of all, taking control of her life. She is no enviable character, a milquetoast who never says ‘No’ to anyone or anything. She is emotionally and sexually abused by her father, physically abused by her mother, medically abused by the hospital system, and subject to alternative, New Age abuse by her lover and other well-meaning ghouls. She is everyone’s victim. And lurking always at the periphery, in a clownish getup, is the specter of death, an otherworldly Dr. Chin, whose name, every time it’s mentioned, is accompanied by a loud, underlining Chinese gong that stops the action.
As Anne increasingly loses control, as she gradually oozes life and bodily fluids, all the worst memories of her past rise up to haunt her, and sometimes, she manages to fight back, freezing her mother, bludgeoning her father, battling with a cruel childhood friend.
With all the production’s multimedia symbolism, the pain and violence are made all too literal and visible. The direction is enormously physical, and when Feldsher, like his main character, doesn’t seem to be in control, things get out of hand. But in the quieter moments, Feldsher’s work can be positively brilliant. When everyone isn’t screaming or careening off the walls, there’s a wonderful choreography to the piece, stylized movements, spectacularly evocative costumes, provocative videos, and a marvelous use of a shaky runway, rear-wall projections, a stage platform with a terrifying rake, and the most magnificent design creation, a transparent, zip-up room on wheels, a symbol, like the bloodshot eye on the 12 video screens, of eternally being a subject of someone’s scrutiny.
Feldsher’s design team reads like Who’s Who in San Diego theatre, and the results certainly measure up to expectations. The scenic, lighting, sound, and costume designers have worked at all the prestigious places in town. You get the feeling that they come to Sledge to let loose and really have fun. Although the piece is often played for laughs, and the playwright has taken an exaggerated, black humor approach to abortion, mastectomy, health care horrors, New Age madness, there really is nothing all that funny here. It’s way too close to the bone, for those who are cancer-ridden and those who aren’t.
With all its creative energy, its acting talent — especially the ever-entrancing Linda Castro, who, as the riveting, pitiful centerpiece, plays her physicality to the hilt, with versatile support from Gregory Clemens, Jennifer Barrick and Dana Hooley — this isn’t an easy play to recommend. It requires a certain sensibility, or lack thereof, a willingness to suspend analysis and go with the flow, regardless of how violent, brutal, repellent, disturbing and distasteful it may be. If that’s your idea of an enjoyable evening at the theater, you’re gonna love “The Peacock Screams When the Lights Go Out.”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.