Ochre House Theater
Director: Matthew Posey
Music Director/Composer: Earl Norman
Lyrics: Matthew Posey
Scenic Artist: Izk Davies
Set Design: Matthew Posey
Puppet Design: Justin Locklear
Prop/Costume Design: Justin Locklear
Lighting Design: Kevin Grammer
Scenic Painter: Josh Davies
Carpenters: Kevin Grammer and Mitchell Parrack
Stage Management: Ellen Shaddock
Assistant Stage Management: Jeff Keddy
House Management: Cynthia Webb
Box Office Staff: Danielle Bundurant and Ruth Fajardo
Photography: Karlo X. Ramos
Graphic Designer: Jeremy Word
Mary Bonner – Justin Locklear
James Bonner – Kevin Grammer
Jamie Bonner – Mitchell Parrack
Edmund Bonner/Rocket – Chris Sykes
Bridgette/Rosie – Carla Parker
Boo Boo – Brian Witkowicz
Keyboard/Computer/Vocals – Earl Norman
Percussion/Vocals – Bobby Fajardo
Reviewed Performance 5/7/2016
Reviewed by Ryan Maffei, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
I’ve never seen a show at Ochre House; Matthew Posey’s celebrated shop around the corner in the Fair Park area, though I worked last year with a canny and enigmatic actress known in primary part for what she’s done there. But as someone whose imagination was stretched at seven to double size by Salvador Dali paintings, Man Ray photographs and Marcel Duchamp transgressions, and captivated at thirteen by Yoko Ono’s aggressively iconoclastic earliest music (not that she’s a major pillar, but making the strange signify is a rare gift – ask Ornette Coleman at your next séance), I’ve always had a besotted penchant for the avant-garde, and Ochre’s reputation is that of the only outfit in town interested in ardent pursuit of same. The notion of devotion to surrealism, cerebrally resonant absurdist shock and fucked-away form steps from the State Fair is hugely compelling, like a thumb battered into crimson circulation emerging from the forehead of southern culture’s honeysuckle-scented corpse. Seventeen months from catching my initial whiff, I was hungry to meet its players, and let them wring dada epiphanies out of my senses.
I wish I’d seen a different show first. The space is so effusive with haunted, cracked beauty, the shards of the regular company deployed in Morphing so game, the theatre personnel so unerringly gracious, I was more than sold by Ochre itself. But, excluding those too narrow-minded to turn their eyes to its frontiers (I remember being eviscerated at a senior year UIL for our Bald Soprano’s reliance on arbitrary nonsense and failure to illuminate the work’s human-condition subtext), Avant-adventurers face twin fates setting off for transcendence of conventions. The first is a kind of overshoot: that word pretentious, the favored dismissal from those resistant at affronts to the expected, becomes life-breathing flesh should the artist affronting’s aesthetic arsenal fail to match the magnitude of their ambitions. As being deathly serious is the quickest way to kill any art (though not theatre reviews, nope!, send a black valentine to whomever told you THAT), the results are usually insufferable; functional evidence for skeptics that avant-garde is, indeed, French for bullshit. The pleasanter pitfall is an equal and opposite undershoot: to simply be silly.
As I said, I’ve never seen a sliver of the Matthew Posey oeuvre. But I am a bit familiar with A Long Day’s Journey into Night – from a videocassette, ratchet-ass as my cultural credentials are, with Jack Lemmon hem-hawing and Bethel Leslie space-casing and Kevin Spacey dick-bagging and Peter Gallagher niceboy-nicing under fully formed eyebrows. As those rich and inclined enough can catch on Broadway, the play more than holds up, O’Neill’s masterful, epic exegesis on the racing decadence of simply being alive, as described by a quartet of cross-generationals at various points along the midlife descent. It’s among the greatest vicious subversions of the family dynamic’s banal model of order – father a bloated never-won in determined denial; mother’s soul numbed by her own miscast role and shell numbed by opiates; the elder son on an inebriated joyride down the slope from misspent youth to sad old age; other brother a hopeless case by mere dint of forming at the end of the grotesque chain. It’s desolately fatalistic, but as most of society’s ills still come from choked empathy and ignoring the mirror, also gorgeously affecting.
Ostensibly, the main aim of Morphing – the title indicating either “from young doomed to old wreck” or, per Elaine Liner, “from drama into comedy”, or perhaps just a pun denoting the mom as the focal point, just in case Justin Locklear isn’t doing enough to drive that needle in – is to parody Long Day’s potential for turgid histrionics. Again, deathly seriousness = invitation to mockery. It’s hardly unfair to reduce the source material as ‘a bunch of sad sacks bitching and shuffling around the same room for two acts’, and even if the language would meet any gifted performer halfway, no good 21st century art comes without a little levity. But if you’re going to go after something as deservingly hallowed as the father of realism in the American theatre’s magnum O, you’ve got to come at it from a few steps ahead. And once the basic premise is established – to take zany mickey out of a play about people so fogged by malaise they can’t make fun of themselves – Morphing doesn’t. For a purportedly avant-garde piece, it is startlingly reliant on cheap, crass clichés. And if the highbrow-lowbrow juxtaposition is itself a joke, it’s a befuddling one.
One point of order commands consensus: Justin Locklear, mincing in drag as the mother over an endless well of nuanced respect, is a tour de force. (He also designed a pair of horrifying puppets and the props and costumes, through which an attuned Avant-sense absolutely sings, especially his electric-light dress at the denouement.) The material forces Locklear to summon and bear nearly all of the poignancy while also tasking him with the best and dottiest lines and set pieces. He’s game and flawless, and Morphing is worth a pilgrimage just to share a small room with the work he’s doing. As the crossed dress suggests, it is probably easiest to burlesque Mary Tyrone’s cloudhead, to subject her to a giggling revision as a wide-eyed Blanche DuBois archetype. Maybe the long gag of Mary shredding like Hendrix in a bathroom haze hinges on an easy joke, but it’s a damn funny one. But the three other performers less relied on for less shrewdly sketched characters are also doing great work: Chris Sykes as a jittery fallboy, Mitchell Parrack popping veins as a Sonny Corleone sort, and Kevin Grammer mouth side-murmuring cartoon patriarchy. Off to the side, shrouded in silhouette, two musicians play ethereal dirges for punctuative commentary.
When the action is its most madcap, with Locklear usually at the center or sidelines, it can be delightful, though there’s also a beach flashback whose anal fixation choreography is brow-furrowingly goofy. Too much of Morphing isn’t just goofy but proudly, indulgently, unapologetically goofy. The Mary character is given few base lines or pieces of business, but the base otherwise abounds. There’s a gag about long balloons and “banana titties”. The most potent word in the English language is slung in disappointingly easy ways – why undercut your own willful absurdity with a rejoinder as easy as “that’s so fucked up”? The chronology is shifted to make Edmund a Vietnam vet, and he mentions it constantly without being made to mine it for any meaningful humor. The word “abortion” is deployed with distressing flippancy as, likewise, a joke on its face. A ‘funny grandpa’ has been added; he creeps, farts, curses, shits himself and is senile, in case you were hoping, and little else. And though Carla Parker works harder than James Brown on her ‘Mockney’ accent, she’s also misguidedly made to deploy what used to be called Ebonics.
Again – not having been previously privy to any of the acclaimed shows for which Ochre and Posey have been heretofore responsible – I’m not sure if the dumb stuff is meant to undermine from an intellectual place. Maybe if Long Day’s Journey felt impossibly stale in 2016, or was known for being desecrated into soap opera (is it?), playing it with the shallow broadness of a panto or SNL ep might make for a laudably punky point. What I know is that in a collectively tipsy Saturday night crowd, the easiest material landed the wildest laughter, while so many magnificently sly choices by the lead quartet elicited mere whispers of titters (a simple “my goodness” from Locklear glimmers with genius). It’s inarguably original, or even a noble right, for any regional iconoclast to insist his rendition of a boringly unchallenged classic include a joke about oversized squirrel testicles. But Posey’s point doesn’t seem to be to diffuse the import of a play sodden with it. For after relegating the O’Neill’s gut-punch coda, “I was SO happy for a time!”, to a drive-by quip, he drafts his own heartrending ending monologue, which Locklear knocks out of the park. Though its point isn’t as evident – something to the effect of “our misery completes us”, my paraphrase of better writing – it’s a fantastic, exquisitely staged moment. But there’s the rub. If the sole purpose of Morphing is to transmogrify high art into tomfoolery, you can’t precipitously shift from caricature sans reality-tethered insight or profundity to your own stab at dramatic heft. Even the avant-garde has rules.
Ochre House Theatre, 825 Exposition Ave., Dallas, TX 75226
Runs through May 21st
Wednesday-Saturday at 8:15PM. For tickets and reservations visit www.ochrehousetheater.com or call 214-826-6273.