What would you do if your plane crashed on a desert island? And you were stuck there for five years with no one but your loudmouthed mother for company? Go stark raving mad, if you're Bishop Hogan (Travis Ammons), the stuttering, foppish and astonishingly carnivorous boy at the center of Nicky Silver's disturbing, black comedy Fat Men in Skirts, the second offering from Houston's newest troupe, Ashland St. Theatre Co.
Bishop and his mother, Phyllis (Therese Kotara), are the only survivors from a plane that went down halfway to its Italian destination. Phyllis has made the flight hoping to revive her doomed marriage to Howard (Michael Johnston), a movie mogul and philandering weasel of a husband. Instead, she finds herself stomping across a small island, suggested by nothing more than a wide mound of white sand in the middle of the stage, with her sniveling son.
She's the sort of urban, take-charge type who wears heels and lipstick in every situation. Seeing this situation for what it is -- utterly hopeless -- she sends 11-year-old prep-schooler Bishop back to the crash site, ordering, "Here's a knife. Go back to that plane. Cut the arm off that nun.Cut it off and bring it back here, and I'll cook it." Kotara delivers these lines with the sort of throwaway irony that she has perfected into an art.
But not even Kotara's reliable timing can rescue Silver's dark wreckage of a script, which is bloated not only with grotesque images but also with a pastiche of ideas about human nature and maternal love. We watch mother and son spend long nights noshing on the arm of a nun, or the leg of a pilot or the belly of a baby. Lots of red goo clings to Bishop's white teeth and drips down his schoolboy button-down white shirt as he descends into a Lord of the Flies bestiality. Years pass. He loses his stutter and takes to calling his mother "bile brain," "vomit head," "crud brain" and "sand head," for no apparent reason other than it's in "the nature of the mind" to be savage when free from the boundaries of convention.
Then comes the inevitable crisis point when two people are deserted on an island and one is undergoing both puberty and a sort of monster conversion. In this naturally unnatural setting, Bishop rapes his mother. Crushed under the weight of her son's growing brutality, Phyllis starts to "love" him in a way that only victims can.
Part Freudian nightmare, part Hobbesian diatribe, this play stumbles across so much ugly territory that it's impossible to comprehend, let alone appreciate, any idea for very long. The troubled mother-son relationship (a running theme throughout Silver's work) is but one small piece in this unwieldy script.
Chris Jimmerson's direction, though energetic, does little to tame Silver's wild screed. Ammons's Bishop is often unnerving as he screams and hisses out his lines about such things as monkeys fucking in the darkness, but his performance, particularly in his monologues, lacks flexibility and nuance. And though Kotara's comic timing is usually impeccable, she fumbles much of Silver's irony, which lands with a thud here. Strangely enough, there's a good deal of unsettling chemistry between Kotara and Ammons, especially in the scenes when mother and son fall into each other's arms.
Fat Men in Skirts will illicit a wide range of responses, from outrage to titillation to irritated boredom. Strange as this piece is, Ashland's production may be the only chance Houstonians get to see this early work by Silver, one of the theater's hottest and most prolific playwrights for the past ten years.
Fat Men in Skirts runs through Saturday, June 3, at Ashland St. Theatre Co., 2610 Ashland, (713)426-3019. $15.
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