Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Cape Disappointment

Photo/Ryan Jensen

“Detroit!” exclaims Paul Thureen, perching uncomfortably beside Hannah Bos in an imaginary but wholly claustrophobic hot-air balloon. “When you’re here, you’re in Detroit!” That line alone, a microcosm of failure in advertisement, captures the mood of The Debate Society’s latest play, Cape Disappointment. When accompanied by the aesthetic perfection of Mike Riggs’s slowly dimming lights, Sydney Maresca’s uncomfortably old-school outfits, the sagging stalks surrounding Karl Allen’s parking-lot set, and the quiet night from Nathan Leigh’s pitch-perfect sound design, that mood only intensifies. Under the steady, familiar direction of Oliver Butler—where the smiles are just wide enough to start to strain—the scene grows even crisper, until the whole thing coalesces into a processed, drive-in movie Schaudenfraude. (Even the popcorn provided is a little cold, a little salty, a little stale.)

These old tricks are good ones for TDS to be up to. At their best--or even here, at their mixed--they have a theatrical craft and eye for storytelling illusion rarely found on stage. However, Cape Disappointment tries to be bigger and better than previous outings, and this is where it stalls. Michael Cyril Creighton and Pamela Payton-Wright are excellent additions to the cast, and both confidently leap into the mundane patter necessary for this atmospheric production. But the transitions are far from seamless: if the play is meant to mimic the unspoken horrors of the ‘50s, then the projector keeps dying, and charm comes across as low-speed nostalgia.

Ironically, this parallels the plays, for these small disappointments are our awkward pleasures, especially when flawed stretches give way to genius moments. At the bottom of the heap is a tale of two linoleum salesmen (Bos and Creighton), who are waylaid on their journey by an old hen (Payton-Wright) and her creepy daughter, weeping over road-kill. The play splices this with the story of a brother and sister (Creighton and Bos) who, after a harrowing experience in the dark woods, find a subtler terror lurking in their aunt’s dementia. But rising out of that is a Lolita-like story— “The Pedophile and the Little Girl” (Thureen and Bos)—that is ruthlessly efficient with its beauty, culminating with a heartbreaking scene that gives weight to the horrors of age.

The promise and decline of Detroit—or at least its advertising—is an apt metaphor. Built piecemeal from unrealized movie dreams, Cape Disappointment works roughly from one moment to the next, a searing collection of red-hot moments: flashlights falling on wooden branches, a girl using a rope to make her lame foot dance, two not-quite lovers gazing silently at the drive-in, and this thought, “They stopped at a llama farm. It was closed.” Cape Disappointment: When you’re here, you’re here.

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