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Held in Contempt

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Fishtank

Half Cocked Productions

at the Space

By all standards of good taste and decency, J. Scott's latest script is not fit for human consumption. Remember the uproar over Natural Born Killers? Child's play. Todd Solondz's continued experiments in schadenfreude? Fraudulent by comparison. NEA grant "abuser" Karen Finley? Please. Fishtank makes Andres Serrano's Piss Christ look like a Sunday school art project. If you don't hate the show within five minutes of entering the dank, dismal confines of the Space, there's something really, really wrong with you.

It's tempting to dismiss Scott as the lesser half of the brain trust behind Half Cocked Productions. Arik Martin is easily the more prolific of the two playwrights and a much better craftsman. While Grand Guignol horror is the company's stock-in-trade, Martin tends to exercise a modicum of restraint: every action serves a purpose, and every moment is imbued with a deeper meaning. Martin favors structure. He'll hand you a glass of water to swallow his bitter little pills while Scott would rather straddle you, pry your jaws open with a rusty crowbar, and choke you with his.

Like Scott's last sublimely awful foray into sadomasochistic audience baiting, Gelo to Oblivion, this hour-long show milks every moment for maximum offensiveness. Its dreamlike scenes, often connected by visual puns, flow like an encyclopedia of crude, vile punishments each more brazenly pornographic and vomit inducing than the last. A crucifixion is followed by a castration, which leads to a flesh- and finger-eating torture scene, a cold-blooded gangland execution, a nod to Dennis Hopper's bizarre adventures in a gas mask in Blue Velvet, and a ritualistic bathtub murder. Blood flows out of every orifice or oozes from gaping wounds; one character even mops the stage with it. Riffing on the fish-tank theme, the press release invites us to "come experience what it is like to be 'locked inside and tortured for no reason.'"

Scott insults the audience in Fishtank even more than in Gelo to Oblivion, making it seem he doesn't want us there at all. The cast greet entrants with a rough, police-style frisking, then fling them to one or another side of the theater, instructing them to find their own seats. The very first character onstage--Prissy Pants Patty, a lisping waif decked out in full Raggedy Ann regalia--says to us, "We hate you. All of you. Just for being you." The play's ending is so abrupt it left most of the opening-night audience members scratching their heads and wondering whether it was time to leave. In the purest theatrical equivalent of a fully extended middle finger, the performers seem to say, Fuck you, your wallets are now 15 bucks lighter. End of story.

Scott has tailored Fishtank to make you hate it. It's a juggernaut, a dynamo, an irresistible force. Try to remember the last time you saw a production that angered you so deeply you wanted to pick up your coat and leave midway through. Or better: one that made you taste the bile swelling up in your throat. Or better yet: one that made you wonder if you were a detestable pervert for taking pleasure in any part of the show, or one whose appalling lack of substance made you feel you were an unhip square for not "getting it." Fishtank succeeds on all those counts: when you're finished hating the show, you hate Scott for ensnaring you in his fucked-up bear trap. And when you're finished hating him, you hate yourself just for setting foot in the place.

It's impossible to recommend Fishtank on the usual bases--though Scott's artfully artless approach is fascinating at times and his perverse sensibilities are echoed exceptionally well by Dieter Frank's sense-assaulting original music and the cast's willingness to expose all manner of human frailties. Beyond its thoroughly dispirited core of rank grotesqueries, it's not a particularly well-crafted piece. There's no "it" to get, no fat to chew, no greater truth to consider. Scott appears to have hit critical mass in expanding on the themes of the 30-minute Gelo to Oblivion. And his ferocious attempts to reconfigure traditional mores now take a backseat to an increasingly myopic view of what it takes to provoke an audience.

In the program notes, Scott offers thanks to iconoclastic writer Aldous Huxley, performance punk GG Allin, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, and dour singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. He also joins the descent into madness onstage under the pseudonym "Jarry Schwartz," a tip of the hat to the Ubu roi playwright, perhaps the best point of reference for Scott's brand of jagged, nonlinear dadaism. That list of inspirations could easily be expanded to include any and every practitioner--from Antonin Artaud skyward--of the confrontational anarchic style.

But Scott would be wise to absorb some of the lessons of his spiritual forebears--playwrights like Peter Handke, whose Offending the Audience takes an equally belligerent course but also pushes for something deeper: Handke makes us question our role as passive sheep by drawing us into a fierce intellectual debate over the theatergoer's relationship with the artist and the artwork. Scott doesn't engage so much as enrage, keeping us sealed inside the self-contained world of his script. He has all the tools it would require to make the earth tilt on its axis, but he needs to learn to seduce instead of going straight for the jugular.

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