There’s no point trying to make linear or literal sense of Buntport Theater’s latest offering, Coyote. Badger. Rattlesnake. While that’s true of many of the troupe’s plays, this one skitters even more blithely than usual into absurdist territory and beyond into the ether.
The action takes place in and around a museum diorama featuring the landscape of North America’s Great Plains. Dead center on the set is a large, flat, square picture; on the floor in front of it are puzzle pieces of the same terrain, holding dry grass, rocks and pebbles, along with a rearing rattlesnake and a badger. The badger’s name is Mitchell. The coyote, Cecily, isn’t immediately in evidence, though she shows up later. Sort of.
Glenn and Carroll, played by Brian Colonna and Hannah Duggan, respectively, are in charge of maintaining the exhibit. They have feelings about the taxidermied wildlife, as well as philosophical thoughts about the nature of reality, the way we live in reality and the ways we mimic it. They deplore the fact that nature and animal life are reduced to dioramas like the one they’re working on, with labels and notes that don’t begin to convey the wonder and complexity of the real thing — though I don’t think either of them would use the words “wonder” and “complexity.” They don’t necessarily agree on any of those concepts, and they disagree particularly over anything that smacks of anthropomorphism. Because the badger and the coyote hunt together, Glenn thinks of them as “buddies.” Carroll rebukes him for that word, though her own feelings about Cecily are strong and complex.
Erin Rollman and Erik Edborg are the stagehands: Not museum employees, but Buntport’s stagehands, which means they occupy a different reality entirely from that of Glenn and Carroll. They put pieces of the exhibit in place, sometimes messing things up, and they, too, are engaged in philosophical argument.
Watching, I couldn’t help comparing the Buntporters’ eccentric, sometimes blade-sharp humor with other recent and less successful attempts at comedy where you could see the actors working for their laughs. The four performers here are at the top of their game, functioning brilliantly as an ensemble, and also — and I think this is crucial — never trying to be funny because they’re so immersed in the (unreal) reality of the events they’re living through.
At the beginning of the play, for example, Carroll is very angry. She believes Glenn brought in the bagel from which rose an insect infestation that destroyed much of Cecily’s face. Duggan has proved many times that she’s a genius at every kind of rage: repressed or volcanic, sullen or explosive, but this role allows her greater range than she’s had before. The character is not just terrifying, she’s also vulnerable and complicated; she feels the crazy things she feels very deeply, and there are hints now and then of a passionate empathy — if not for actual humans, then at least for the mummified animals of the diorama. Colonna’s Glenn isn’t cowed, however. His responses are perfect, whether he’s wry, puzzled, momentarily defensive, tuned out or, in a fantastical re-enactment, describing the sad death of Mitchell the badger. Rollman and Edborg hold their own, even though they’re working in half-darkness a lot of the time. Rollman bustles around and uses bits of scientific knowledge to boss Edborg and put him down while he, tall, quiet and kindly, holds the moral high ground.
For this production, the Buntport five (the fifth is SamAnTha Schmitz, who helps create the plays and takes care of tech during performances) worked with an outside artist, playwright Ellen K. Graham. I’ve seen absurdism in Graham’s previous work, though perhaps nothing quite as fanciful as this, and I tried to recognize her influence here, to figure out if there was some difference with Coyote. Badger. Rattlesnake. from Buntport’s usual tone and focus. I thought I sensed a bit more briskness and sharpness to the dialogue, perhaps less repetition — a kind of whizzing quality — but all of that can also be seen as Buntportian. It would have been so much fun to be a fly on the wall and watch these astonishing talents lay out their collective vision and somehow fuse it. But as it is, just sitting in the audience for this hilarious, ridiculous and brilliant piece of theater is enough.
Coyote. Badger. Rattlesnake., presented by Buntport through December 22, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, buntport.com.