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Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames

Viaduct Theater

Sam Shepard once said, "I have American scars on my brain." If that's true, then Denis Johnson's entire psyche must be one suppurating wound of American excess and failure in all their Technicolor horror. His writing aches with the impossibility of coming to grips with either the grimness of the past or the evanescence of the future. His characters cling with ragged fingernails to whatever image of themselves they think will propel them through the next day, even though they're not so sure tomorrow will come--or if they'll want to be there when it does. With sometimes unnerving prescience, Johnson broadens Shepard's insular, incestuous terrain of family secrets, sibling rivalry, and romantic dysfunction into larger, more public realms of unease: imprisonment, sexual harassment, menacing bureaucratic figures.

It's tempting to think that Johnson's broader canvas is a function of his years writing novels and short fiction, genres in which the theatrical constraint of compression doesn't necessarily apply and in which the writer may move seamlessly from interior monologue to dialogue to descriptive passages. But it's also true that Johnson's fiction, with its heightened, comically grotesque situations and quirky exchanges between characters, lends itself well to staging. Campo Santo, the company where he's a playwright in residence, recognized this four years ago when it staged several stories from his collection Jesus' Son, months before the film based on the book was released. From that collaboration with the company--one of the most passionate and daring ensembles in the Bay Area--has arisen a challenging, compelling series of plays that captures the spiritual exhaustion of American life in the 21st century with compassion, wit, and a sense of horror.

Locally, Viaduct Theater and director Whitney Blakemore have made Johnson's work their calling card. Last fall they produced Hellhound on My Trail--the first in Johnson's trilogy about a troubled family. Now they tackle his second play, Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames. (The third installment, Soul of a Whore, just closed at Campo Santo and will be produced by Viaduct later this year.) Shoppers picks up where Hellhound left off, but it's not necessary to know the first play in order to appreciate the second.

In Shoppers Cass--the youngest of the three Cassandra sons--has returned from Texas to his family's low-rent roost in Ukiah, California, planning to take another stab at rehab and to force some sort of dialogue about the family's past. His father spends most of his days in bed, wearing dark glasses a la Roy Orbison (another man with a tragic family history) and mourning the end of his two marriages. Cass's grandmother watches television and occasionally indulges in moralistic outbursts about divorce, sobriety, and the inferiority of KFC biscuits to the homemade kind. The television itself is a sort of character, voicing its own monologues, describing the environment outside the family apartment, delivering stream-of-consciousness odes to driving an Eldorado through desert landscapes, and otherwise commenting on the proceedings. (In the parallel universe of Johnson's plays, it's "one of those new TVs.") An incontinent 20-year-old Chihuahua, which doesn't seem to belong to anyone, is never seen but adds to the chaos with its incessant barking and peeing.

Then elder brother Luke Cassandra, known as Bro, appears on the scene. Bro doesn't merely aim to revisit the past--he plans to kidnap it, kicking and screaming, by winning back his ex-wife, Suzanne, who's about to marry Gib, the childhood sweetheart of Marigold Cassandra, the boys' sister. Marigold herself shows up in the second act, adding to the complications. But the vicious, conniving, self-pitying, pitiless Bro is the seething heart of the play. Like many borderline psychopaths, he has a clarity of vision that's expressed in bone-cutting observations about the rest of the family. ("Dad spends his life in bed because he's depressed about losing his second wife. His second wife left him because he spent his life in bed all depressed over losing his first wife.")

Shoppers premiered in early August 2001, less than two months after Andrea Yates drowned her five children one by one in a bathtub. And the mother of the Cassandra brood--the first wife--is serving a sentence in Texas for vehicular homicide because she ran over the youngest of the five kids, Amy, many years earlier. One of the things Bro is hell-bent on doing is forcing Cass to admit that their mother planned to kill all of them. Meanwhile Marigold's inability to remember anything about the tragedy--or any other dark details of the family history--enrages the volatile Bro. "You wouldn't remember Hiroshima if it happened up your butt," he tells her. "Your mind is one big candy cloud."

Johnson's characters tell conflicting stories--the talking television is probably the most untrustworthy commentator. The play's title comes from a surreal tragedy. But when Grandma notes with shock that "26 underground shopping malls have burnt," Bro bursts out, "You've just seen the same news report 26 times, you senile old woman!" Later on the television comments, "Since 1994, 26 underground shopping malls around the globe have suffered fires." Who's right? Who can be trusted? Johnson's contrapuntal tragedies in the personal and global realms provide the play's thematic undergirding--and make his writing feel as prophetic as the family's oracular namesake. In our times, one nightclub tragedy follows on the heels of another. The space shuttle blows up all over again. A president prepares to fight a war 12 years after his father bombed the same country. Attempting to break the bonds of history, each of the Cassandras chooses a different poison--drugs and alcohol for Cass, complete withdrawal for Dad, determined amnesia for Marigold, rage and retribution for Bro.

The only character who seems to live outside this loop is Marcy, the "retarded" woman Bro has been shacking up with for five years, since he jumped bail. Marcy shows up near the end of the play in a weirdly poetic scene decked out like Kali, the Indian goddess of destruction, after a "spiritual makeover." Yet she's fundamentally innocent and incapable of comprehending Bro's cruelty and deceit. Fortunately Adrienne Smith avoids the trap of playing her as a cloying idiot savant. Instead her earnestness suggests what the world looks like to someone who seeks answers only in the here and now--not in wretched memories of the past or rapidly vanishing dreams of the future.

Despite the play's undeniable riches, the Viaduct production doesn't find its legs right away. Ben Viccellio's performance as Cass grew on me, but he seemed to be struggling to discover the character's core, particularly in the first scene. The second act opens with a downbeat, rather unsatisfying exchange between Marigold and her father: neither of them is much clearer to us by the end of it, though Ian Harris's air of resignation and fumbling attempts to connect with Marigold (Julia Siple) do have a wistful charm. Steve Walker's pile-driving performance as Bro is outstanding, however, and Robert Whitaker's set design is spot-on, from the oversize television console (occasionally occupied by Keith Ellis as the TV's voice) to the cheap religious figurines on the bookshelf to the tacky, faux erotic black-velvet painting in Dad's upstairs lair. Ariel Brenner as Grandma mostly manages to transcend the overtones of a crazy religious coot--crucial in order for the ending's faint whiff of hope to make sense.

Even though Shoppers is meant to be a self-contained entity, there's a nagging feeling that the third part is essential for this epic tragicomedy to reach its resolution. But given Johnson's hypnotically fucked-up family and indelible, oddly beautiful vision of cosmic doom in Shoppers, I'm eager to catch Soul of a Whore.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Whitaker.

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