Photo by Jay Michael FraleyAfter experiencing the three one-acts in Ken Urban's New Jersey Trilogy, you're not sure if you should brush up on your Hegel or take a cold shower, whether you should puke or beat off.
As heady and metaphysical as it is brutally shocking and profane, as unapologetically iconoclastic as it is downright silly, this unholy troika, in the hands of the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company, succeeds best in getting you excited about the limitless possibilities of the theater. Urban, a New Jersey playwright, is as comfortable ripping apart theatrical form as he is addressing subjects foreign to all but the most adventurous stages—from Kant's theory of the sublime to eating ass.
There are several football fields of ground covered in Urban's plays I (Heart) KANT, Nibbler and Halo. The only similarity in form or content is setting: they take place somewhere in New Jersey. And while it's hard to tell if Urban is as brilliant and provocative as he is clever and perverted, it's undeniable that he's gushing with talent, a sexual deviant, a student of philosophy, a Mac Wellman disciple and a writer wholly unafraid to tackle anything.
Same goes for director Dave Barton and the brave ensemble he calls on to do everything from scat dancing to dropping their panties and fingering their private parts. If you pony up to do plays as challenging, off the wall and as intensely violent and sexual as these, you can't let anything like vanity, embarrassment or even good taste get in your way.
I (Heart) KANT covers everything from loneliness in the time of the information superhighway to middle-aged incest. In terms of form, it sets the tone for the rest of the bill. Each play is like taking a blind curve at high speed: it's nearly impossible to see what's coming next. Lots of playwrights can write a nonlinear play, but how many write pages of simultaneous dialogue delivered by four characters punctuated by moments of Zen-like silence during which your brain—you, the audience—fills in the blanks? Or opt to drop an incongruous dance number into a scene featuring four women that, I think, is supposed to embody the ecstasy of the feminine but, I think, veers perilously close to rug munching? Or write a play in which actors are required to call on four distinct styles—naturalistic, presentational, out of character and just plain weird (or "sublime," as Urban writes in his notes)?
In other words, there's more experimentation in this one play than on a busy day at Dr. Mengele's office. And, yes, you can argue that Urban is having so much fun tweaking form that not a lot gets (clearly) said—but what's being said is just so interesting that it's easy to excuse the dramaturgical excess.
But what's it all about? Something about the intense loneliness and suffocating isolation that four very different—but emotionally connected—women are feeling. I think.
The funniest of the three plays is the second, Nibbler. Stylistically, we're in Wellman country (no surprise, since Urban, along with intensely studying and writing about the work of Sarah Kane, also studied with Wellman, that avant-garde paragon of American playwrights). The play is pointedly political, wickedly clever and completely illogical.
To reduce it to something like a plot, Nibbler is about a group of recent high school graduates struggling with everything from sexuality; fears of college; popping their cherries; the upcoming 1992 presidential election; and the Jersey Devil who lives in the Pine Barrens, a huge untouched forest.
Again, the ensemble is excellent in this play, which traverses lots of territory—from a terribly poignant look at a young man's denial of his homosexuality (a terrific Walter Lutz Jr.) to a space alien capable of miracles, whether it's giving a young woman her first orgasm or turning a Gen X slacker into the worst kind of college Republican. It's fun, frenetic stuff, and while you get the sense that maybe Urban either is too clever or doesn't trust himself to be too sincere (do we really need the space alien in a play that works so well on a more logical plane?), it's a wild, toxically invigorating ride.
But the play that truly heralds Urban as someone that the contemporary theater should take notice of is the third on this bill, Halo.
Halo is a triptych within the triptych; it's three distinct plays taking place concurrently. On the left side of the stage is a freewheeling take on the medieval morality play Everyman,with life-size puppets (courtesy of Sean T. Cawelti) both supporting and harassing the pilgrimage toward salvation of Everyman (Marcia Bonitz). Stage center, it's Albee/Beckett time, with four masked women representing the same woman at four different ages in her life, looking backward and forward at her life, speaking in disembodied, fragmented poetics and occasionally joined by a daughter and a playwright son.
Holding down the right side is a viciously profane tale about two suburban kids who get off on killing pizza deliverymen and then masturbating over their bloody, dying bodies.
The pieces come together in a climax straight out of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers,with priests, doctors of philosophy and TV talk show hosts all bearing the brunt of one young couple's dissatisfaction with the dire consequences of pop-culture overload.
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Time will tell whether Urban possesses a unique voice dedicated to profoundly communicating, or is merely a hopped-up, snickering post-grad taking an ax to middle-class America. Take this short exchange from Nibbler:
Tara: There exists a fictitious set, an empty set, which contains no elements whatsoever.
Adam: Show me a mouse hole and I'll fuck the world.
It may take a hundred more productions before I get those lines. Here's hoping local theaters continue to give us the chance to enjoy this wicked confusion.