The Custodian | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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THE CUSTODIAN

Transient Theatre

A huge cockroach wandered onto the stage during the intermission of Transient Theatre's performance of Michael Weholt's The Custodian, took one look, and walked out before the second act had begun. With intelligence like that, no wonder it's said that cockroaches will outlive the human race.

There were other indications besides the displeased cockroach of the sort of evening we were in for. The walls of the set were painted a distracting, sickly green. There was also a strong odor of polluted, stagnant water coming from the aquarium onstage. But unfortunately it wasn't only the fish tank that stunk up the place.

I don't know if I can quite pinpoint the moment when I lost patience with Weholt's play. It may have been when the protagonist thinks the growth under his mother's breast is a godforsaken fish-child waiting to be hatched and tries to shove a vacuum cleaner between her legs to perform a crude abortion. It may have been when the hero stalks a punk rocker with a butcher's knife and comes back onstage dripping with blood. It may have been the moment when the mother uses a fishnet to catch several of the live goldfish onstage and either pretends to or actually dumps them down the drain. Or maybe it was during the play's final moments, where the knife-wielding hero attacks his supposedly pregnant mother offstage and comes back on clutching some bloody placentalike thing.

What there is of the story concerns a schmuck named Peter who has moved into a hideous new apartment. The previous occupant has left a fish tank and a note informing him that humanity is doomed and that he should feed the fish once a day. But every time Peter tries to feed the fish, strange characters pop in and out of the onstage doors, all acting as if they'd escaped from the sets of B movies. And every time Peter turns his back on the boob tube, the TV turns on and it seems the goldfish are watching it.

This is entertaining enough for about 20 minutes during the first act: we watch chain-smoking high-society Griselda (in 40s dress and 70s shoes), gun-toting Damon Runyonesque Big Bill, sassy New York gangster-girl Mary, and foppish Jack threaten one another with guns and dash in and out of slamming doors each time Peter tips his container of TetraMin into the tank. There are even a couple of mildly amusing moments: when Peter's mother enters in a mouse suit, and when a pesky pollster named Pip invites himself into Peter's pad, proceeds to pontificate about politics, and pecks and pirouettes and poses like a pigeon.

This would all be fine and good if it went somewhere--or even if it went nowhere in a manner approximating coherence. But after the play goes nowhere for a good long time it devolves into the most ugly form of shock theater imaginable. The questions the play poses--Are the characters real or imaginary? Are the fish in control? Who's sane and who's not?--are never answered, and we're left feeling stupid for even having tried to make sense of the thing.

By the end we've got a bad taste in our mouths and some wonderfully profound message like "The world is insane," or "Don't try to create order out of chaos," or "Next time save the ten bucks and stay home." I'm getting more than a little tired of playwrights who make no sense but try to justify their sloppiness by saying "Well, sometimes the world's like that--chaotic." It's a cop-out and it wastes our time.

There are good actors here who would be well advised to leave this misanthropic piece of "theater" off their resumes. Weholt is a graduate of the Iowa Playwrights' Workshop, and director Frank Adducci claims in the program he'd like to direct more of the work coming out of it. But if this work is any indication of the general quality, one would hope not. It may be called The Custodian, but what this play really needs is a plumber who can take a plunger and flush the whole thing down the drain.

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