The Column Online



by Mark-Brian Sonna

MBS Productions

Directed by Mark-Brian Sonna
Costumes & Sound Design by Mark-Brian Sonna
Lighting & Audio Visual Programming by Scott Guenther
Lighting & Set Design by Alejandro de la Costa
Box Office Managers: Kim & Cory Wickware

Acrisius – Thain Limb
Alecto – Sahara Ale
Proetus – Adam Kullman
Danae – Sarah Nichole Thompson
Leaena – Natalie Hope Johnson

Reviewed Performance: 10/28/2017

Reviewed by Ryan Maffei, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

The language of dreams is, in theory, the perfect lexicon from which to summon the sorts of horrors we seem to seek at a peak at this time of year. The shock of physical dismemberment having been played out in ‘80s multiplexes and now largely reserved for more sadistic cineastes, the most artfully unsettling stuff is best achieved, at least in this reviewer’s opinion, with the suggestion of the unreal – my favorite flavor of scary shit, as in the stuff that freaks me out the most, occurs when whoever’s setting it up plays predominantly with unnatural movements, odd sounds, or the unexpected presence of something or someone that has no right to be there, at least in that condition. The least cheap thrills come when the author of whatever freakiness we’re witnessing leans on strangeness, innuendo and atmosphere, and lets it build until we’re not sure quite what’s going on but know it’d be a lot better to get the hell away.

Innuendo and atmosphere, or at least overtures to same, are meant as meat in this new Blood Feast – which is not, gratefully, a campy retread of Herschel Gordon Lewis’ ‘groundbreaking’ trash-a-thon, but rather an adaptation of a Seneca play (Thyestes) whose goings-ons’ relative grotesquerie (zip forward fifteen centuries to Titus Andronicus for a comparable reference) exceeds, in this interpretation at least, the historical and metaphorical value Sonna hopes we impose on it. Sonna’s version has a great origin story: he dreamed himself watching a performance of the show, but it was off, in that arresting and unsettling way dreams show us impressions of our realities. You can feel his perplexity and rapture alike in his wonderful program notes and the intro he breathlessly provides before the show. But as Blood Feast progresses, disconcertingly literal writing and uncultivated performances erode his black magic.

The most striking, and scariest, moment occurs when a man, Acrisius, of indeterminate age (plenty youthful and perfectly named Thain Limb, whose rags and weakness in the scene call to mind King Lear in the thick of a storm) hobbles through the underworld, encountered by beautiful yet menacing spirit Alecto (Sahara Ale, burning it down in this scene exclusively, with her eyes and evil grin), complete with black bat wings. Face shrouded unsettlingly in gauzy veil, he begs information, lost, and she offers her first response, which we can tell by her grin is carefully selected – she screams, a shriek alabaster with bloodless terror. This moment chilled me right to the core, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. But as she then speaks, callow intonation, not entirely Ale’s fault, and evasive words, not at all her fault, slowly pull us back to earth. A shrewdly rendered dark-wood background fades, and we slip into the main action.

Blood Feast, as does Thyestes, concerns the long-simmering, labyrinthinely complicated rivalry between two brothers, Acrisius (now clearly in his thirties at least in this part of the action, though the whole cast looks uniformly sub-25) and Proetus, the details of which are generously provided – actors constantly drift to the front of the stage to deliver leaden and unsubtle exposition, right at us, and even then the details don’t always clamor for our attention. These testosterone-rich foci are flanked by their partners, an assertive jetsetter and a long-suffering nice type, while Ale, now playing an attendant, looks on. The brothers comment on how this character, their childhood nanny, looks uncannily youthful despite the passage of time, one of many reveals served to us on glistening plates very early on. Though even the primary twist dangles over you like Damocles’ sword throughout, the garish teases aren’t ineffective.

The show, a touch tawdry and more than a mite gratuitous, might amount to vicious, tasteless fun were there more than a single unimpeachably successful performance. That designation is earned by Natalie Hope Johnson, whose Leaena is the only source of real humor amid all the mounting unpleasantness and manufactured tension. The show has laugh lines, most of them delivered with osmium-heavy winks, but by virtue of Johnson’s hook – a British dialect she unwaveringly occupies, the ironic lilt of which allows her to take every line like the top of a banister – nearly everything she says is amusing. The play surges into life once she arrives, roughly a third of the way through, and she provides a terrific foil for Sarah Nichole Thompson’s Danae, the play’s closest thing to a moral anchor (Sonna literarily allots each of his characters a deadly sin, and all Danae gets is three-glass gluttony and arguable, Hamlettish* sloth).

Thompson survives the show, so to speak, the disparity of the quality of her work and her male scene partners’ indirectly aiding the frustration she deftly animates, and once Johnson’s character gives her something to seethe about her performance gains a real power. But she begins a bit awkwardly, and it mustn’t be a coincidence that the brothers’ actors are awkward throughout. Though Adam Kullman has a mildly alluring conviction and smoothness playing the scrubby brother, his unctuous, vampiric take on Proteus has the feel of a soap opera, of somebody lying to you outside the call of duty of playing a liar. He never lets his menace go anywhere, or recede in a believably tender way, except in vague shades at the end. And Limb, whose jejune work as the scruffy brother isn’t helped by an ill-fitting suit, is mostly nuanceless minacity. His excessive glowering, overwrought shifts and habit of getting painfully close to his fellow actors at every semblance of an altercation leaves him with too little juice in the tank at the very end, when the material unambiguously demands he conjure up cascades of rage and apoplexy.

Though there are few refuges available when your central performers weaken your intentions, Sonna’s script, the quality of which it’s difficult to ascertain under the circumstances (I found Johnson’s character and her dialogue very clever, and a good bit of the brothers’ parts clumsy), is well served by the slate-hued space and everyone he’s invited to sparsely dress it up. A trio of background projections provide for perfect accoutrement: the aforementioned hellscape; three thematically relevant paintings against a gold background, including Goya’s most disquieting image in a career full of them; and the title image on the program and advertisements, which fades away more effectively than you’d imagine. The costumes are elegant even if not all of the characters perfectly inhabit them. What little sound and light there is sets the tone just right. And the titular feast – two courses, chefs uncredited – looks unnervingly right.

A note – while your critic, who saw a Saturday matinee, was more nonplussed than not, this show does seem to be doing what it set out to on a diverse set of attendees. Abjuring a traditional curtain call, and I think this is the only spoiler I’m allowed to provide, Sonna has his actors simply stand around their well-dressed table, genial grins shot through with dread by all the discomfiting priors. It’s a smart choice, and one which shivers with all the play’s intentions. Deathly silence dutifully follows from the other side of the space. If, as was palpable with some of my fellow theatregoers, this work affects you just as Sonna (who knows from darkness) intends, you’d do well to snag a reservation for his indulgently bleak soirée.

* author’s apologies for three Shakespearean references (so far) in review of something more ancient

a play about sibling rivalry by Mark-Brian Sonna
MBS Productions at Addison Studio Theatre
15650 Addison Rd., Addison TX 75001
Runs Nov. 2 – Nov. 4 at 8pm and Nov. 5 at 2pm
see for further information