at Red Bones Theatre
Point a gun at somebody's head, and he's going to pay attention. It works in real life, and it works in the theater. Take your semiautomatic weapon to a Texas cafeteria or an LA freeway and wind up on the ten o'clock news. Put your finger on the trigger of a stage pistol and watch the audience jerk to attention.
That gun crimes are epidemic in this country is a given. You need only throw open your window at night to figure that out. Everybody seems to be packing one. And not just the crazies and the gang members. Your taxi driver's got one hidden under his seat. Your friendly local convenience-store owner has one in the register. Your neighbor has a big one up on his wall for hunting and another stashed in his dresser for burglars.
In Brian Quinette's Gun Plays, performed by Renegade Theatre at Red Bones Theatre, the curtain is raised on a nightmare vision of society where everyone has a ready-to-fire weapon at his disposal. The play comprises five short "gun plays" by Quinette interwoven with dance sequences and short scenes developed by Renegade Theatre. Inserted between scenes are monologues written by Chicago poet and playwright Silvia Gonzalez S. and delivered by a character named Angel--who also slips in and out of scenes, observing and commenting, connecting them together.
The play is directed with kick-ass rock-and-roll intensity by Mark Liermann and performed with vigor and conviction. But though some sections of the play show Quinette's talent for writing dialogue and developing a sense of tension, ultimately it's brought down by underdeveloped characters, stock situations, and a rather ambivalent moral tone--it seems to decry the use of guns, and yet it abuses their power to make the point.
The most effective of the gun plays is "Gun Play #2." This short piece tells the familiar yet engrossing story of a couple of apparent hit men playing a power game with a gun and a seductive young woman. Danny and Gemma have lived together ever since he got her out of a tough scrape. He's a jumpy sort who feels more in control of his life when he's packing a piece. But he begins to lose control when Russ--once his target and now his alleged buddy--comes to visit, takes a drink, and starts sweet-talking Gemma. Though the scene is rather derivative--Arthur Laurents's Rope and Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky are a couple of sources this scene recalls--some good dialogue and excellent performances carry it. Peter Regis-Civetta is a wonderful Danny, a firecracker of energy, nervously twitching his trigger finger and working up a paranoid sweat. Nelson Russo is excellent as Russ, a suave, menacing individual who appears to have stepped off the set of a Scorsese movie. Michelle Nance, given less to do as the third point of this triangle, does quite well with a role that forces her to react a lot more than act. But despite all this, "Gun Play #2" fails to answer a lot of critical questions. Like how did this jumpy guy ever get a job as a hit man? Or is he a hit man? And why does a gun get passed around so freely from person to person when there's so much underlying tension? These characters' pasts and motives are incredibly sketchy, and as a result the conflicts seem to develop not from their needs but from the needs of the script.
Other scenes are less effective. "Gun Play #1"--about a crazed female in a Catwoman-like outfit who leaps off her newspaper-box perch, straddles the groin of an unsuspecting yuppie male, and then pulls a gun on him--seems like the product of a male toothed-vagina fantasy. Brien Straw as the unsuspecting yuppie is overly smarmy, more game-show host than panicky victim. "Gun Play #3," which concerns a lifeless body and two women who accuse each other of murder, is a pointless game of high-stakes freeze tag. One could argue that's what life with guns is like, but the underdeveloped scene is implausible on virtually every level. "Gun Play Highway," an ensemble piece, works like a good improv scene, showing people in their cars in a traffic jam when a man pulls a gun. It's well performed and occasionally amusing, but it doesn't go anywhere.
The dance sequences, performed to hard thumping music on a surprisingly good sound system, are quite watchable but not exactly subtle. Having the entire company point guns at the audience is a cheap scare tactic and reeks of overkill--it's manipulating the power of firearms to make a dramatic point. You don't have to shoot a dog to get someone to buy a magazine, and you don't have to point a gun at somebody to get him to listen.
There are other problems. Angel's monologues and poems get so dramatic that they become comical. The metaphors of raining bullets and puddles of blood are overdone. And Angel's costume, which makes her look like Stevie Nicks in a Fleetwood Mac video, is a little bit silly.
"Insight," the final gun play of the evening, gives us two blind men and an absurdist cat-and-mouse sequence. Gabriel Forrest and Patrick Hatton perform well, but by the time this scene rolls around, the audience is completely numb and must wait what seems like ages for the inevitable tragedy to develop.
I have no idea how Gun Plays was written, but it looks as though it began as a series of improv scenes, the kind where you say, "OK. We have two characters and a gun. Let's go from there." The never-developed characters don't seem to exist outside the scenes in which they're presented.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Bakke.