by Mark Roberts
directed by Stephen Rothman
June 20–September 2
Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre
Kate Abbruzzese – Susie
Elizabeth Aspenlieder – Joellen
Jason Asprey – Ronnie
Josh Aaron McCabe – Gene
The midwestern family, hardly one of the United States’ more perfect contributions to civilization, has taken its share of abuse from writers since before Mark Twain’s time. In recent years, Tracy Letts, with his August: Osage County, started something of an industry for himself in the theatrical exploitation of this somewhat over-ripe institution, but he has by no means cornered the market. The American — not only the midwestern — family remains a gift that keeps on giving. After so many years of hearing the gospel of the religious right, the Tea Party, and their like, those of us who are not in the fold are all too ready to join in a good sardonic laugh, sneer, or horror show on the subject, especially if it includes a misguided, or, better, corrupt evangelical clergyman. Josh Aaron McCabe’s character, Gene, is not himself corrupt, but he arose from corruption. Although in the end, he is only pathetic, for much of the play he’s the sort of character we want to bombard with rotten vegetables. In any case, there are enough sceptics on family values in the Berkshires to guarantee a quorum for Mark Roberts’ entertainment about two brothers, their wives, and their mortally ill sister, who never appears on stage, but is the reason for their coming together.
In fact spirits were high in the lobby of the Elayne P. Bernstein Theater at Shakespeare & Company, both before the show and afterwards, as the bubbly circulated, to make it clear that the performance was a terrific success. The cast, as one would expect of these familiar S&Co actors, was top-notch, Stephen Rothman’s direction was full of energy and a canny understanding of the play’s strengths and weaknesses, and the set was a masterpiece. Parasite Drag is by no means a masterpiece, but that didn’t really seem to matter under the circumstances: its point, which it made again and again with brutal simplicity over the course of the evening, came across, and most of us lapped it right up. Sometimes, our inner midwesterner has just got to have its Big Mac…or in this case a bucket of KFC may be more fitting.
Just as a good family-sized bucket of KFC will have its pieces of breast, thigh, leg, wings (but no organs, please, we’re Americans) Parasite Drag has, in addition to its soon-to-be preacher (Gene), a sex-starved wife (Joellen), a black sheep brother (Ronnie), his superficially cheap, but good-hearted wife (Susie), all liberally breaded in bitter resentment. We get a literal experience of just how dyspeptic this combination is when the characters try to get through a take-out dinner of the aforementioned delicacy. One of the issues in the group concerns language — to such an extent that it becomes a major subtopic of the play — that is, bad language. Ronnie and Susie, who arrive at Gene and Joellen’s house unexpected and uninvited, both express themselves with a generous seasoning of epithets, above all, the “f-bomb,” as director Stephen Rothman put it, when conducting a census of them. In this day and age most of us are hardened to profanity, and to make it work, Mark Roberts does what he has to: he introduces a character who strenuously objects to it. Of course it’s the future minister who assumes this duty. This didn’t seem all that convincing to me, because in my experience men of the cloth tend to be among the more foul-mouthed people I have met, but let’s assume that Gene is some sort of evangelical (not an Episcopalian, in any case), and he’s a mid-westerner, and he hasn’t had much pastoral experience, if any — so Gene finds swearing, whether scatological, sexual, or blasphemous, deeply offensive. He is also punctilious about the law. He disapproves of even mild illegalities, even if they ease the pain of a loved one.
I’m not the only one to have found the breaking of linguistic taboos to be one of the great weaknesses of modern theater, cinema, etc. The “bombs” quickly become routine, and the words lose their meaning. In fact the words don’t carry a great deal of meaning, and, as the taboo had weakened and the expressions have become common, they only dilute the playwright’s language. And it’s been a long time since those taboos were broken on stage. I stress this here, because this is precisely what didn’t happen in Parasite Drag. The good old swear words kept flowing, mostly “f-bombs,” and they remained effective to the end in contributing to the color and energy of the already athletic action.
Another dramaturgical taboo Roberts freely transgresses is exercise of a certain subtlety or finesse in laying out his narrative. The basic passport information, life-data, as well as the sordid facts central to the story are all communicated in the same raw fashion without any attempt to create suspense or focus through hints or any other kind of indirection. The “bomb” seems to be the playwright’s natural mode of expression. The bad news keeps coming throughout the play — all in the same emphatic, loud monotone. This would be terrible craftsmanship, as far as Messrs. Ibsen and Archer are concerned, but once again, Mark Roberts seems to make his own crude rules and get away with it. One may feel somewhat bludgeoned by the many distressful and sordid explosions, but not to the point that the play loses its power to “entertain and educate.” I’m not entirely sure why it works so well, but it does. Perhaps it’s because our perspective on the characters changes, as the shit goes on hitting the fan. Perhaps it’s Mark Roberts’ passion about the subject…
The play was at its best in the second act. The extended scenes between Joellen and Susie and Joellen and Ronnie were really fully developed and satisfying. Fortunately not every family is as sick as this one, but most people can relate to something in the play. At the end nature provides the solution, while the two brothers and their wives, their inherent illnesses and their conflicts provide the action with a powerful sense of catharsis, of purification through fear and sympathetic suffering. Parasite Drag is by no means a tragedy; it is too much of a mixture of black comedy and unredeemed blackness for that, but it leaves the spectator with the same effect — the healthy, exhilarated feeling of liberation that got the after-party off to a lively start.
Parasite Drag could well have fallen flat if it hadn’t received a top-notch performance from all. Only a year or two ago I read Keith Kibler’s high praise for Kate Abbruzzese’s Hamlet (yes, the title role), which she took on soon after graduating Vassar, and I’ve been keen to see her work ever since. She played Susie with a confidence and maturity which show that she is securely off on a distinguished career. There was no caricature or cheap laughs in her potrayal. Elizabeth Aspenlieder, always a great favorite in the Berkshires, totally inhabited the role of Gene’s unhappy wife. Nonetheless, Ms. Aspenlieder brought a warmth and fundamental decency to Joellen, which made the character more sympathetic than she might have been. Joellen is a basically fairly conventional woman who married the hopelessly fucked up Gene many years before, presumably long before he got the idea of seeking ordination. She is now going to seed, not from the harmless indulgences that she has devised to make her life bearable, but from the boredom and lack in her marriage. Josh Aaron McCabe intelligently steered his way through the treacherous part of Gene, which wouldn’t have worked at all if he’d made him either too hateful or too much the victim. He earns a modicum of sympathy in the end, because he was present in the final emergency of his sister. He witnessed it without flinching and did his limited best for her. Jason Asprey was a brilliant Ronnie, negotiating his character’s hillbilly accent better than any Cockney from Fulham has a right to and living up to the family ne’er do-well’s macho charisma. Stephen Rothman’s committed direction doubtless led all four through some risky waters in this far-from-perfect play, although all of them had to speak a few lines that stuck in their throats. A little trimming wouldn’t turn it into a King Lear, but it might make it a little less ham-fisted. But this is about the Midwest, after all, and perhaps ham-fistedness fits right in.
In any case, it all makes for an exhilarating night at the theater. By all means don’t miss it, especially if you’re bored with the blander fare that seems to be making the rounds this summer.