Written by Sheila Callaghan
Directed by Kip Fagan
"I'm a divining rod for the morally bankrupt," the FBI man tells us as he gives his psychological self-portrait. Later, undercover at a fried chicken commercial audition, he yells: "I'm a nugget, homes!" Both hilarious proclamations are accurate. This nameless agent assembled from classic noir anti-heroes, shot through with middle management inconspicuousness, dressed in grey flannel and only distinguished by his super-powered eyepatch, oversees every detail in Clubbed Thumb
's premiere production of Sheila Callaghan
's latest, Roadkill Confidential
through September 28). He doubles as a director-within-the play for director Kip Fagan, who juggles the elaborate text superbly. Danny Mastrogiorgio goes all out as the almost campy detective, humanizing hilarious hard-boiled lines like "I'm a block of clay-shaped clay" and "Who is Trevor, you ask? She might have been my greatest triumph. But she was my demise, so to speak."
A cruelly blunt and emotionally frayed young artist working on a follow-up to her gruesome Whitney debut, Trevor (Rebecca Henderson) seems a perfectly-matched eccentric to the agent's proud ordinariness. Her project to create a sculptural installation out of roadkill, which we watch her collect during swerving nighttime drives that evoke the opening credits of Lost Highway
, takes on an even darker dimension when the animals she assembles turn out to be infected with a highly contagious disease that's deadly to humans ("The disease is called tularemia—'Rabbit disease,'" a whimpering doctor informs us). The project's potential use for biological warfare brings the agent—it's never made clear on behalf of whom, though the script says "FBI man" and it's "a matter of national fucking security"—to the upstate New York town where Trevor lives with her Modern art historian husband William (Greg McFadden), celebrity-starved stepson Randy (Alex Anfanger) and nosy divorcée neighbor Melanie (the hilarious Polly Lee, almost stealing the show). Callaghan's targets in Roadkill
appear twofold: the solipsistic art world star system, and the surveillance society of Homeland Security-era America.
The two figureheads for each system speak to each other mainly through a dust-sized surveillance device the agent plants in Trevor's houseplant. Her confessions to this camera, relayed via almost a dozen screens pointed out at the audience as part of scenic designer Peter Ksander
's superb, multimedia-ladden set, double as video diary. Trevor explains the goal of her project: to confront viewers with the casual violence of contemporary life that we accept numbly while watching "those channels." The agent, talking back to her image as if the tiny device were an intercom, fears more nefarious plans. Already two people have died from contact with infected animals, and the hilarious newscaster on intermittent wall-sized broadcasts cautions in Callaghan's darkly funny, list-prone deadpan style: "No need to panic, Berkshire residents. But please stay out of the woods. And away from the squirrels. And do not touch your pets without gloves. And do not go hiking. Or fishing. Or swimming. Or hunting. Or birding. Or leaf-peeping. And do not play outdoor sports. And do not mow your lawn. Or trim your bushes. Or garden. Or weed-whack. Or rake. Or hoe. Until further notice." Around this time, panic becomes the characters' default mode.
The difficulty in Roadkill
, and Callaghan's work in general, involves balancing the Onion
-caliber sarcasm of such moments and the ironic deployment of stock characters and situations, with the seemingly earnest critiques couched within. Here, weirdly, it's the added mediation of live video feeds and wall-sized projections that cuts through the distancing comedy. The strange disjuncture of watching Henderson, her back to the audience, head in the houseplant, and face in close-up on the monitors, amplifies Trevor's most intimate and unguarded moments—she tells the agent: "And then I think...maybe it isn't a crime to make oneself numb to that kind of extremity...And that's the exact moment I want to kill myself." It also further unsettles the agent's moral position (and, by extension, our own) with regards to her increasingly deadly piece—as in Adam Rapp's The Metal Children
, the artwork within the play becomes as interesting as the play itself. The final reveal, for us and the cameras from those same channels, provides a horrifyingly beautiful closing tableau, a fleshy, festering exclamation point on the sparsely designed show's clinical cool. Full of righteous certainties and conflicting convictions, Roadkill Confidential
ends with triumphant, gripping ambivalence. It's a chase into the digitally distorted psyche of a society at once overly sensitive and totally desensitized.
(photo credit: Carl Skutsch)