by Jeff Grygny
Director and scholar Herbert Blau called the art of theater “blooded thought:” philosophy with a hot pulse. There’s no stage blood in Punk is Dead!, Aaron Kopec’s latest Halloween play at the Alchemist Theatre, but figuratively, it wallows in the stuff. Kopec’s previous Halloween shows have been creepily entertaining, with touches of the supernatural, laced with Kopec’s writerly musings. This play, with it’s claustophobic focus on two unhealthily-entangled characters, is like the absurdist classic Endgame— except instead of Samuel Beckett’s quaint European postwar despair, Kopec offers a post-punk scream of whisky-and-heroin-soaked American hell.
Making his main characters both female rides the current cultural wave and lets the infinite emotional gradients of their love-hate tango glisten like the rainbows in a stagnant oil slick, as they bungee-cord between unspoken yearning and junk-fueled abandon; bitter resentment and domestic violence, with the occasional quiet moment in between. Natasha Mortazavi and Liz Mistele deliver fearless, excruciatingly raw performances. The hour-long first act plays out the dynamics of their relationship, and it’s exhausting: Beckett turned up to eleven.
The production has the usual grungy Alchemist flair: Evan Crain’s set design is intricate and naturalistic with an artsy touch; the music and lighting are virtually their own characters, changing in a heartbeat to suit the ever-shifting moods. Mortazavi plays Stoli, a fallen rich girl who abandoned being her father’s deal-closer, only to inhabit a cluttered shoebox apartment that she rarely leaves. Mistele plays Don, a punk musician who grew up hard in the South; now past her youth; living from gig to gig playing clubs where the kids just don’t get it. Don drinks whisky out of the bottle and shoots heroin; Stoli seems not to be able to form any new memories.
Playwright Kopec is revisiting many of his favorite themes: the gritty anarchic mileau of the 80s; complex female characters; the conflict between art and commercial culture, and a whiff of the supernatural. Nobody comes out and says that Stoli is an undead blood-drinker; she might just thinks she is as part of her disorder. She does seem to imitate the moves of Max Schreck’s Nosferatu at one point, and late in the play she tells a vague story of how she came to be “not a girl.” In the second act, Don brings a man home, presumably to provide a meal for Stoli, but nothing much seems to come of it. Mostly, they share stories. In Kopec’s distinctive cocktail of trash-talk and literary prose, the stories are vivid and memorable, drawn with a fine sense of detail and ambiguity.
The fun part comes after the show, when you— hopefully over a strong drink, because you’ll need it after the emotional wringer you’ve been through— try to puzzle out what all this blooded thought was thinking about. It is what it is, of course, but—codes of class and status pervade this odd couple. A dead rich girl and an outsider musician, locked together in a careening, if stable, relationship: it’s pretty juicy. Could this be a dark satirical portrait of neoliberal capitalism, seductive but dead, in a love-hate tango with art? The world of oligarchy leeching the life-force of trapped, crazy, addictive enablers ? Discuss!
Don and Stoli form what chaos theory describes as a “robust chaotic system:” a pattern that repeats itself with variations over time, periodically teetering into disorder before it re-establishes the status quo. Evolutionary biologists tell us that those dips into chaos are where mutations and variations come from—it’s an intriguing, even romantic, description of the creative process, venturing into the wild to glean scraps of something unknown. In this reading, Stoli can’t help being what she is: a vampire who, incapable of anything new, has snagged an artist, a chaotic source of creativity, to support her; like the modern world fetishises innovation in the name of “disruption” that keeps it in power.
But nobody can predict what creativity will discover. Do the math: maybe there is hope for something new after all.
Alchemist Theater presents
Punk is Dead!
by Aaron Kopec
playing through October 27