John Harvey's mind seems to be a tortured place indeed. In Rot, the newest story coming from Harvey's dangerous pen, incest, disease and a general sense of the hatefulness in us all are wrapped up in an outrageous examination of family life. The fact that the bitter production, created by Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company and Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre (under Harvey's direction), is also laced with deliciously dark moments of ironic humor and painful humanity only makes the theatrical experience that much richer (and, yes, that much more disturbing).
The nasty family in question consists of a tyrannical mother named Barbara (Patricia Duran), a spineless father named Earl (Eric Doss) and a hell-raising daughter named Ann (Jennifer Decker). Wracked with the plague, Earl crawls on the floor on his belly, twisted in pain, constantly apologizing to his vile wife, who calls him a "fucking piece of shit," among other insults. "Die, Earl," she says to her foolish husband, over and over again. When their long-lost daughter returns, their world only gets more barren. This deadly daughter wreaks destruction wherever she goes. She simply needs to glance in their direction and birds die, moths burn and whole cities implode (all accomplished via a hysterically funny set piece that would be unfair to give away).
Visiting the family are two strangers in nothing but boxers and T-shirts (Joel Orr and Wes Copeland) who do a very good job of reminding these miscreants of all their past bad behavior. Enacted with some beautiful puppets, the Earl and Barbara of decades ago show us how dreadfully they behaved back when Ann was just a child. Ann, too, gets to watch her history being enacted by a puppet. We make all sorts of discoveries about the family, none of which speak well of these people.
But while there is no moment of redemption, no uplifting ending, there is artful grit to this theatrical trip along the outer boundaries of familial "issues." The story is creepily compelling, and the use of puppetry is surprising and powerful. It truly is funny -- shockingly, disturbingly funny. And though the whole thing could use some trimming (an hour and a half is a long time to kick an audience in the gut), this production marks a giant leap forward in Mildred's Umbrella's artistic maturity. They team up well with Bobbindoctrin (who also seem to enjoy a good swim through the ugly guts of humanity); the two companies together have created a smart, wildly literary piece of experimental theater the likes of which no Houstonian will see anywhere else this season.
The Alley Theatre's production of Terry Johnson's Hitchcock Blonde is a heady mix of sexual tension and technical thrills. Directed by Gregory Boyd, the play skitters over a vast landscape of subject matter, with a narrative focusing on Alfred Hitchcock himself (played with a convincing likeness by James Black) woven into a story about a modern-day college professor obsessed with some old cans of film shot by the great director before he became famous.
Over the course of the play we bounce back and forth in time, moving from a Greek island where Hitchcock aficionado Alex (Mark Shanahan) and his student Jennifer (Elizabeth Bunch) are spending a few weeks examining found cans of film, to 1950s Hollywood, where Hitchcock is working with a blond body double (Melissa Pritchett) on the famous shower scene in Psycho. That both couples eventually move from work to play is no real surprise. The blond is a classic bombshell, with red lips and an oozing desire for fame, and Alex and Jennifer are alone in the sun with nothing to do but look at old film. The sexual tension on stage is palpable. Even more interesting, though, is what sexuality reveals about the characters. As with any Hitchcock film, sexual fulfillment here is dangerous indeed.
As these two stories move forward, images of women showering, hidden knives and sliced skin all begin to stack up into a surprisingly suspenseful plot that is smartly informed by Hitchcock's famous shower scene.
As impressive as the narrative is, the story would not have nearly the power it does without the technical wizardry that designer William Dudley has produced here. The stage is essentially bare except for a series of backgrounds created with enormous projected images that flicker across a wondrous puzzle of white scrims and flats. Each floats in and out, forward and back, creating a sort of stage-size camera shutter. The effect is enthralling. It even adds a layer of suspense -- it's hard to see this without wondering, "How'd they do that?"
The final equation of these elements adds up to a unique, surprisingly sexy production. Even viewers who don't think of themselves as Hitchcock fans will be sitting on the edge of their seats by the end.