By John Quinn
It is the nature of the job that theater critics work odd hours. At Encoremichigan, we also work an arbitrary “year,” which ends today. I am experiencing a Zen-like completion, as my Metro Detroit wanderings bring me full circle to where my season began – Planet Ant Theatre in Hamtramck. But “The Do Over,” Margaret Edwartowski’s little comedy of love’s labor lost, is a polar opposite from Dennis Potter’s “Brimstone & Treacle.” But that’s the Ant for you: a black box full of surprises.
If “Brimstone and Treacle” is, as the press release describes it, a comedy, it is the darkest comedy I’ve encountered. One doesn’t find the caveat, “This play contains shocking content: Not for the faint of heart!” in press releases very often, not especially regarding comedies. Originally recorded in 1976 as a teleplay for the BBC, “Brimstone” was withdrawn from the schedule. Alasdair White, the BBC’s head of programming, called it “brilliantly written and made, but nauseating.”
Indeed. Potter rewrote the script as a stage play, which debuted the following year. Potter’s script is so deliberately provocative that an audience should experience it undiminished by the small screen. Director Dave Davies stirs the boiling pot and serves up a stew chock full of creepy Gothic glory.
It’s England, sometime in the ’70s. For two years, Thomas and Amy Bates have devoted their lives to the care of their daughter, who was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident. Strapped to a hospital gurney in the living room, Patricia is unable to communicate and must depend on her parents for even the most basic needs. Thomas believes she is just a vegetable. Amy thinks her daughter is still inside the failed body, unable to communicate except by random gibberish.
By amazing coincidence, Thomas encounters a young man on the street. Martin Taylor claims to have been Patricia’s almost-fiance. He appears crushed by her disability, and his insistence on helping quickly disarms Amy. Thomas is suspicious. ”We don’t know anything about you,” he says. “You could be the Devil himself.” Ensuing events demonstrate that this angel of mercy is not heaven-sent.
Director Davies, always a master craftsman, chose some top-flight material for this project. Planet Ant is one of the most flexible performance venues in town, and part of the fun is discovering what the designers have come up with. Kevin Barron provides suitably moody stage lighting, complete with a rousing lightning-charged rainstorm in conjunction with Dyan Bailey’s thunderous sound design. Katie Orwig’s scenic design is one of the most detailed I’ve seen there, a full box set that incorporates two of the theater’s doors. The entrance to the theater from the lobby becomes access to the flat’s bedrooms in the time it takes to close it. In, literally, shutting out the world, that simple action impelled us into suspension of disbelief. It was an unexpected and pleasurable experience.
Sonia Marquis and Clement Valentine portray all the stress a couple would bear under such tragic circumstances. Marquis is especially affective as she shares Amy’s pleasure in her first day off in two years. Carolyn Hayes, also known around these parts as the Rogue Critic, accepted the role of Patricia, which is quite a challenge. Left without movement, without dialogue, with only vague gestures and, from my vantage point, only limited expressions; the performer must still denote character, which Hayes pulls off admirably. Artist and director make it clear that Patricia is aware of her surroundings and is trying to communicate.
But, sweet as syrup and as acrid as sulfur, Martin Taylor drives the plot. Patrick O’Connor Cronin imbues the role with a two-faced delight. Like Shakespeare’s Iago, he is delighted to announce his wickedness to us. But without the Bard’s soliloquies, Cronin employs smirks and leers and knowing glances to share his glee. The character is the central paradox of “Brimstone and Treacle”: can evil be good? Could the performance be broader, to better contrast the dichotomy? Possibly; but there exists a thin line between drama and melodrama that would here be inappropriate to cross.
“A word to the wise is sufficient,” but for “Brimstone and Treacle I’m giving two. Potter’s provocations can be offensive. BBC correspondent Gerald Priestland claimed that he could “imagine several groups of people who will be very upset by it, particularly carers (sic) for the mentally handicapped, women who do not believe in the therapeutic value of rape, and people who believe very firmly in the value of prayer.” It helps if one can forgive the playwright for his essentially nihilistic world view. In addition, if you go (and why wouldn’t you?), PAY ATTENTION! Potter has woven into his plot off-hand comments that are crucial for understanding the climax. If you have to consult Wikipedia to find out what just happened, you’ll feel like a doofus.
‘Brimstone and Treacle’
Planet Art Theatre, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through June 1, plus 2 p.m. Sunday May 19 & 26 and 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 28. 90 minutes; no intermission. $20 ($10 May 28 only). 313-365-4948. http://www.planetant.com