In-Your-Face Theater

In the tiny space that is Juggerknot, some powerful stuff gets thrown your way

A TV turns to static. A young girl lies motionless on a bed. A man in a suit enters a dark kitchen, loosens his tie, and opens a refrigerator. These scenes could be indiscriminate snapshots of anyone's daily life, but placed in one of Michael John Garces's plays, they become suspenseful and disturbing. Juggerknot Theatre Company premieres land. and audiovideo, two one-acts (written and directed by Garces) based on mystery, things left unsaid, and twisted emotions. Garces's brand of suspense possesses an emotional intensity that isn't derived from what is hidden but rather from what is revealed. It's the information we are given in land.and audiovideo that leaves us feeling haunted. The combination of Garces's directing and this troupe's courageous acting binds these two plays, creating the confrontational and compelling theater for which Juggerknot is gaining a reputation.

Garces's writing has vast range, which was evident in the poetic and colloquial one-man show Agua Ardiente, performed last year at the debut of Oye Rep. As both a writer and director, Garces neither composes nor directs with a stage in mind but rather an arena where human beings are asked to reveal some of their most extreme, and often ugliest, emotions, and then play them out against those of others. In land. and audiovideo, emotions are weapons that characters use to struggle for their survival.

In audiovideo the action revolves around high school buddies Ryan (David Perez) and Eric (Oscar Isaac) and a mysterious film they've made. It's easy enough to gather that the film, directed by Eric and starring Ryan, features sexual content strong enough to win the boys the admiration of peers -- and the wrath of authority figures. To their horror they realize the video accidentally has been switched with a tape of Eric's family trip to Yellowstone National Park, and his parents (and beloved grandmother Nonnie) are probably watching it at this very moment. The TV is turned away from the audience, and all we can see are the faces of the two young men as they watch the screen. What is suspended before the audience is what audiovideo explores: not the content of the video itself but simultaneous desire and terror of being caught in a forbidden act.

David Perez, Jay Catlett, and Oscar Isaac dabble in sex, lies, and two videotapes
David Perez, Jay Catlett, and Oscar Isaac dabble in sex, lies, and two videotapes

Audiovideo'sscript is so elliptical it probably looks like an e. e. cummings poem on the page. Eric and Ryan finish each other's sentences and converse in a sort of modern-day MTV cave-speak composed of monosyllabic utterances. But they infuse the spaces in the dialogue with a ferocious physicality and guttural communication that is even more intensified by the fact that the stage takes up more space than the audience does. This is theater in your face, literally. These actors wrap themselves around the language, and you can't take your eyes off of them. A simple conversation appears to be a brawl, wrestling match, and party all in one. At times the intensity turns to comic relief; for example a pesky kid brother, deftly played by Jay Catlett, comes on the scene and whines, "You guys aren't supposed to be down here!" reminding everyone of their own childhood basement antics.

This is not just an excellent play; it's an anthropological study. Isaac and Perez as two inarticulate, adolescent boys brimming with testosterone, anxiety, desire, and rage, echo our primordial connections to warriors and hunters. They beat the wall, pound heads, bounce around, wrestle, grunt, groan, yell, and scream. We see here that in the evolution of man, the body articulates itself before the tongue does. Before we make words, we make sounds.

As for land., Lolita it's not. Thankfully land.reveals the twisted relationship between an older man (Chuck Pooler) and a fourteen-year-old girl (Tanya Bravo) without the deliciously picturesque Nabokovian scenes of toenail painting and lollipop sucking. This is the year 2001 after all. The girl's father is never home, and her mother whores around, so she is left to fend for herself. Result? She ends up having a relationship with one of her mother's lovers. In a series of vignettes, the two characters jump from a kitchen on stage left to a bedroom on stage right in search of solid ground. In these two rooms, the pair tries to satiate appetites even they don't know they have: rage, guilt, loneliness, desperation.

These vignettes are skillfully directed and organized by Garces, who has the actors subtly mark the changes in the emotional and physical environment with their bodies. The girl consistently unties her hair as she gets into bed. The man methodically puts on his shoes as he leaves the bedroom. The dialogues, which occur in the kitchen and bedroom, are interspersed with monologues, which take place center stage under a light that shifts from a confessional glare to a lonely amber hue. Sometimes an audio narration overlaps the girl's monologues, adding a haunted feeling to an already scary situation.

Bravo and Pooler are exceptional. Bravo has a predilection for playing young girls. She was a standout as young Ruth in New Theatre's production of The Book of Ruth last year. Likewise we recently saw Pooler's knack for depicting an everyday Joe who is frightfully demented, yet somehow disarming and likable, in Juggerknot's production of Neil LaBute's Iphigenia in Orem. The two make an enigmatic pair emotionally and visually. In one of the earliest bedroom scenes, the vision of Pooler's large body looming over Bravo's small frame is downright frightening.

Some of the dialogue has the elliptical quality of audiovideo, but within this new context and under the dark set lighting, it takes on a disjointed, disturbing sensuality and hostility that's almost dreamlike. For instance the man says to the girl, who hardly sleeps: "We lose more in our dreams than we ever had waking to find -- another reason to stay awake." It also is this stream of consciousness that becomes a bit unwieldy and confusing in some of the man's monologues. The play seems to go on too long, and its end leaves us with some major questions: Who really is the young girl's lover? Is it her mother's lover or her own father? Has the lover been arrested? Is he being cross-examined? This ambiguity is somewhat disconcerting after investing an hour and 40 minutes in these characters and their situation.

Because the script itself is so rich in dialogue and characterization, and Bravo and Pooler's performances are solid, I did not leave feeling unsatisfied but was definitely aware that I had just seen a work in progress, one that needs a little more editing. Honing well-written text is a problem most writers don't complain about. And the experience of having theater as an experimental laboratory for new works is exciting. It's also part of Juggerknot's mission, as Bravo (also artistic director of Juggerknot) explains, "I would eventually like Juggerknot to be a place where playwrights can come and workshop their material, then take their pieces to New York or other parts of the country." As a matter of fact, land. will make its New York debut next spring as part of INTAR's (International Arts Relations) 2002 season. Juggerknot continues to find the right work for its small space and expansive mission, and South Florida theatergoers continue to benefit from it.

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