Visions of Death

It's hard to assign a genre to John Guare's Landscape of the Body, currently being produced by Paper Cat Theatre. It's absurdist and unrealistic; it mingles horror and slapstick. "I'd like a laugh track around my life," says Betty Yearn, being interrogated as a suspect in the murder of her fourteen-year-old son, Bert -- and in a way, she has one. Throughout this scene, the script, along with actress Janine Kohlenbach, treads a narrow path. Betty is devastated by Bert's death, yet the dialogue is for the most part light and ironic. This fizzy mixture is sustained throughout. Mind-deadened kids seduce "fruits," rob or kill them and urinate on the prone bodies. Someone gets shot as the result of a mindless practical joke. The moments of tenderness are as unpredictable as the spasms of violence. Periodically, a character bursts into song.

Betty has moved to New York with Bert to visit her sister, Rosalie. But Rosalie is killed by a careless bicyclist -- much, apparently, to her own relief; she finds death "comfortable." Betty takes over Rosalie's two jobs: starring in golden-shower porn films and staffing a travel office for Raulito, a man who likes wearing a dress because it makes him feel rich. Meanwhile, Bert finds his own place among a group of feral, empty-eyed young people.

The dead Rosalie, who both loves and resents Betty, returns periodically to talk to her or comment on the action for the audience. "Flashback," she announces. Rosalie tells us twice that what we're about to see is known to none of the other characters in the play. That's how we learn who decapitated Bert, a secret that neither Betty nor Detective Hallorhan ever manage to unravel.

It'll hurt your head if you try to interpret all this, but if you just let the play's events unspool before your eyes, you'll enjoy a highly satisfactory experience -- dopey and hard-hearted, original and sometimes oddly touching.

The play's energy zings up a notch with the entry of Durwood Peach, the Good Humor man Betty and Rosalie remember from their childhood. White-suited, courteous, formal, in love with Betty and wanting to spirit her away to a safe and mythic South of green grass and white fences, Durwood offers the sweetness of peaches and vanilla ice cream. Somehow the play's entire meaning hinges on this character. Betty responds to Durwood's invitation with her usual mix of haplessness, cynicism, gold-digging and emotional need. Either callously or carelessly -- you're not quite sure which -- she leaves her adolescent son to fend for himself on Bleecker Street.

Later, we learn from Rosalie that Durwood Peach is dead. Has he been killed by his so-charming family because he took Betty to their door? Or was he never real to begin with, just a childish fantasy about being whisked away by the ice-cream man come to life? Yet within the context of the play, Durwood's as real as anyone else, and it's his offer that sets in motion the train of events leading to Bert's death.

Death is at the heart of Landscape of the Body. The dead watch the living; the living tumble into death. Bert's dopey, dangerous girlfriend JoAnne specializes in the kind of twisted urban legend that involves black-widow spiders trapped in lacquered hair; Betty reminisces about a cancer-ridden friend who, for long, long months refused to die. The play communicates death's inescapability, the idea of death as a merciful relief, the macabre humor of some people's ends.

The John Hand Theatre at Lowry is a shabby, cozy place, and this is a low-budget show. The set is minimal, the lighting no more than functional. Instead of a band, the singers are accompanied by a lone piano, played by Christine Dunning. Somehow the regular-folks audience and the unpretentiousness of the proceedings add to the pleasure of the evening. Director Jake Mechling has directed his mix of seasoned and very young actors well, and everyone in the cast works with integrity. Sara Martin is a vital, sensuous Rosalie, and she has a lovely voice. Janine Kohlenback's Betty manages to be both dotty and matter-of-fact almost in a single breath; she, too, gives a fine performance. Mark Graves is a low-key and believable Bert; when he sings, his small, insecure voice adds poignance to the lyrics. There's a standout performance by Arielle Sarah Brachfeld as JoAnne. Unimaginably thin, skipping about the stage, she wears the character's evil lightly. Bryon Hall is deceptively gentle as Donny and Thomas J. O'Connor manages to make Raulito over the top without descending into caricature. Aaron Carnevale does well as Detective Hallorhan; Ellen Steves is effective as Margie. As the mysterious Durwood Peach, Josh Hartwell comes close to stealing the evening.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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