Los Angeles Premiere
Written by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
Directed by Dámaso Rodriguez
January 24 - February 21, 2009
January 29, 2009
By Philip Brandes
If you think that getting in touch with your inner primitive is the ideal antidote to the sterility of modern civilization, San Francisco-based playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's "Hunter Gatherers" urges you to reconsider. In a razor-sharp staging from Furious Theatre Company, Nachtrieb's bitingly hilarious black comedy spares neither savages nor saints as a polite dinner party devolves into an orgy of pent-up rage, sex and bloodshed.
An exotic gourmet meal is the annual tradition with which two 35-year-old couples who've known each other since high school celebrate their enduring friendship, but this year chef Richard (Doug Newell) has taken foodie obsession with the freshest ingredients to new extremes. Perched over a large cardboard box in the center of their upscale urban loft, butcher's knife in hand, he coaxes his reluctant wife, Pam (Sara Hennessy), to help him slaughter the bleating lamb they'll be serving later on to disaffected Wendy (Vonessa Martin) and her milquetoast doctor husband Tom (Steven Schub).
This pagan sacrifice is but the opening volley in the escalating mayhem that unfolds once the guests arrive. With abundant irony and well-turned barbs, Nachtrieb's sharply crafted dialogue follows in Edward Albee's footsteps, peeling away layers of well-mannered repression and hypocrisy as the foursome succumb to their basest impulses. In his determination to leave no taboo unviolated, however, the still-maturing playwright is at times seduced by cleverness into outrageous excess at the expense of continuity and coherence, even by the internal logic of this absurdist context.
Dámaso Rodriguez's relentlessly paced staging builds suspense with the visceral engagement of a cinematic thriller and draws nicely realized characters from the entire cast. Hennessy in particular parlays superb deadpan naivete into a journey of self-discovery through the dark corners of Pam's psyche -- a journey that ultimately takes on metaphysical dimensions. As the bodies pile up, there's ample opportunity to employ her cookbook's advice for calming the passing souls of slaughtered lambs with stories of magic and happiness.
January 28, 2009
By Les Spindle
When a whimpering lamb is ritualistically silenced as a prelude to a dinner party, it's clear the gathering isn't going to be your garden-variety schmooze-and-booze fest. Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's savagely funny comedy is a shocker, but the amazing thing about this San Francisco–bred work is how the playwright elicits a cockeyed sort of empathy for the flipped-out characters who inhabit this unnerving dramatic universe, which combines the verbal savagery of vintage Edward Albee with the visceral brutality of Sarah Kane. In director Dámaso Rodriguez's sidesplitting yet thought-provoking L.A premiere, the distinctive voice of a trailblazing playwright strongly resonates. Nachtrieb explores the thin line between civilized behavior and animalistic demeanor that exists in humans, giving us a harrowing glimpse at the results of people crossing this boundary when they?re backed into an emotional corner. Neanderthal male Richard (Doug Newell) not only believes freshly slaughtered animal flesh is required to make the anniversary party for his friends a success; he has additional surprises on the agenda -- including the determination to "spread his seed" among the guests. This makes him a good match for the self-centered and duplicitous Wendy (Vonessa Martin), who arrives with her mild-mannered geek of a husband, Tom (Steven Schub). Tom's kindred spirit is Richard's suppressed wife, Pam (Sara Hennessy), whose defense mechanism against the cruelty of Richard and Wendy is to pretend it doesn't exist. Acts of desperation lead to electrifying developments and an amazing denouement. The tight ensemble tackles the difficult material with intelligence and skill. The actors demonstrate terrific physical dexterity in fight scenes, masterfully choreographed by Brian Danner. Newell pulls out all stops to convey Richard's sociopathic leanings in a performance of impeccable insight. Hennessy's shrinking-violet housewife is a wonderfully detailed combination of nervous tics and subtle facial expressions denoting Pam's repressed despair. Martin nails the arrogance and selfishness behind Wendy's fake niceties. Schub triumphs as a tragicomic nebbish struggling to rebel against bullies. Design elements are likewise first-rate. This marvelous production is a fitting kickoff to Furious Theatre's graduation from Actors Equity's 99-Seat Plan to a Letter of Agreement arrangement, now offering substantially increased pay for its deserving actors.
January 27, 2008
By Sharon Perlmutter
You go to the butcher and buy some lamb for dinner. Practically speaking, there isn't a whole lot of difference between you buying the lamb from a butcher and you slaughtering the lamb yourself (it certainly doesn't make any difference to the lamb) . But buying the lamb from a butcher (think about that word) is civilized, while killing it yourself, well, isn't. Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's play, Hunter Gatherers (in its LA premiere) begins by crossing that line, when a normal, everyday couple, unable to get a fresh enough lamb for a special dinner, slaughters a lamb in their normal, everyday living room. And once that line has been crossed, Nachtrieb's dark comedy gamely sees just how far it can go.
It's a dinner party. Four friends—two couples—are getting together to celebrate an anniversary. With the evening so special that it demands an animal sacrifice, one might expect this to be the anniversary of some really creepy event (a blood oath of some sort?). But, as the play soon explains, it is simply the couples' joint wedding anniversary. There's nothing creepy here—a fact which, when you think about it, is really creepy.
Richard is the evening's chef—he's the one who insisted on ultra-fresh lamb, despite the misgivings of his wife, Pam. Richard fancies himself an artist, both in the kitchen and out, and he is driven by his desire to create something better than everything that has ever gone before. And, coupled with his desire to create, Richard also possesses the desire to dominate and destroy. He finds it necessary to prove his manhood by wrestling his friend, Tom, even though the nerdy physician poses no physical threat. It's like a bad episode of that High School Reunion show where, instead of the bully apologizing for hurting his victim's feelings, he goes right back to his aggressive, humiliating ways. Doug Newell's loud, energetic, domineering Richard starts off the play as just a little bit on the primal side of things, and he's absolutely terrific as he descends into full-on caveman.
Richard is matched not by his own wife, but by Tom's wife, Wendy. Wendy (Vonessa Martin) is insanely passionate about everything. (When Wendy's knock at the door isn't immediately answered, she immediately freaks out because Pam and Richard must be dead.) But she feeds Richard's urges and incites him to go further; she's nearly orgasmic at the scent of his cooking lamb—oh, and she'd like to have his child.
Pam has an innocence to her, and a serious case of denial (which leads to a hilarious first act closer). Sara Hennessy's portrayal starts off a bit stilted, as though some of Richard and Wendy's heightened responses are making it difficult for her to remain normal. But her performance picks up as the play progresses, and the more we know about Pam's own repressed urges, the better she gets. Tom (Steven Schub) is also hiding a baser self, but he so desperately doesn't want to lose the veneer of civilization, he keeps trying to take the high road of mutual respect with Richard—a path that can't possibly end well for him.
Nachtrieb's play is smart and funny, as he allows his characters to explore their archetypes in different situations. When Richard tells the others of his slaughter of the lamb, Pam still weeps over the death of the animal, Wendy is excited by the sensual pleasures of the meal, and Tom thinks it's a Health Code violation.
Directed with the usual Furious Theatre Company flair by Dámaso Rodriguez, the play is alternately intense and hilarious; and, as with other Furious productions, the cast works together with an apparent level of trust that enables them to push limits with each other with conviction. It results in a fine example of Furious's work—an impressively engaging production of an edgy new play.