Parasite Drag by Mark Roberts. Directed by Stephen Rothman.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
". . .it’s like taking a crippled kid to the roller rink."
On occasion comedy and tragedy get mixed up together in the blender along with some gin and bitters. When you finish the grind and mix cycle what you pour out into the vessel of your choice is what Shakespeare and Company has put on its Elayne P. Bernstein Stage, Mark Roberts’ play "Parasite Drag." This intimate theater is the vessel that receives the harshly blended ingredients of this tragi-comedy, or come-tragedy - I really can’t decide which it is. But the blend is not smooth and it doesn’t go down easily, although its taste is straight out of a Key West bartender’s book of specialty drinks.
It is as though Tennessee Williams was making a comeback here and almost still had the chops to pull it off. There is a real beauty to the sound of southern speech, a poetry that seems to have been lost since Tennessee fell off the face of the world. Roberts imbues one of his characters with that quality, Ronnie, the older brother, son of an abusive father, a suicidal mother and brother to a weaker man and a betrayed sister. Ronnie, a janitor, recently married to a much younger woman who manages a Curves franchise, comes to his brother’s house uninvited, regales the religious man, Gene, with obscenity after obscenity, lewd allusions to their childhood, disrespectful discourse on their parents and still manages to wax poetical in ways that are too beautiful to ignore. "Family turns into acquaintances. Acquaintances become strangers. Sad, really. Gives life a bittersweet flavor, I find."Ronnie says to his brother. The quality and imagery, the rhythm and the sway of speeches like this bring that Williams quality to the work.
As performed by Jason Asprey, Ronnie is both a hostile man and a lovely, almost noble, boy rolled into one adult creature. It is hard not see the youth that has been lost in a hard world when he speaks and when he moves. When he embraces his sister-in-law there is something wonderful in that touch and yet he lets us know, as he lets her know, that there is more behind his genuine affection and it will exact its due. This is one of Asprey’s best performance, strong and filled with nuance, romantic and at the same time violent and volatile. He plays the man who holds the secret truths. He needs a few more of them to make this a perfect play.
As his wife, Susie, Kate Abbruzzese delivers a solid and controlled performance. As the newest member of a dysfunctional family she feels her way into each new relationship and sees with clarity the road before her. She plays all of this with sincerity and when Susie’s light and enlightened attitude about fidelity seems to clarify what has come before, the actress portraying her makes her seem ingenuous and realistic simultaneously.
Director Stephen Rothman does a wonderful job of establishing these two people in a moment right out of Tennessee Williams’ play "Period of Adjustment." Each of them has clearly gotten Rothman’s attention as they quickly define their characters in relation to their unhappy hosts. The director’s hand is clear in the control and the controlling manner in which both Asprey and Abbruzzese bring home their positions.
At the start of the show we are warned the play contains "adult content." This is a true statement. The language of the play is harsh and familiarly filled with the "f" word. There is an onstage sex scene that would be graphically overwhelming were it not for a high comedy moment that precedes it and a late-night telephone call that stymies it in the act one blackout. Again, the director at work allows just enough graphic material to play out before the drama reenters the romance of the work.
No one is better at playing such conflicted sequences than Elizabeth Aspenlieder. She plays Gene’s wife Joellen in this play. Joellen is an unhappy woman, a wife who has lived without sexual intercourse for a long time and misses even the unsatisfactory relations she had with her husband. We meet her in a moment of wrathful regret. We follow her through the play and by her actions both offstage and onstage we learn enough about her to know that what transpires is exactly what needs to happen. Aspenlieder brings to this part a wealth of experience on stage playing in every style imaginable and, as usual, hands us a fully developed character who can bring us complete understanding of Joellen from the first instant.
Her husband, Ronnie’s little brother Gene, is played by Josh Aaron McCabe. Gene is hard to like and we want to like him. He has been the one to take on all of the family responsibility, first for an inhuman father, and then for a self-abusive sister who is dying of a sexually transmitted fatal disease. He is religious and his faith does not sustain him through the trial of receiving the return of his wayward brother. He pulls himself through each difficult experience in this play and survives to be narrow-minded for another day. McCabe pulls all of this brilliantly. In the final scene of the play, confronted by more levels of truth than anyone has a right to expect to hear, McCabe’s Gene implodes before our eyes becoming someone we have never suspected him to be, not even for a moment. This is an acting challenge met straight on and, sadly, never given a chance to reach conclusion.
Like the historic deux ex machina of ancient theater, a wild storm engulfs the action on stage as all four players are tossed about in a fury over which not one of them has any control. Unfortunately, the playwright leaves us with nothing but that final vision to take away with us. The play, its conflicts and contradictions, its tempest-tossed participants, its sexually-charged objects of desire and distaste, are left in the dark and there is no resolution at all offered. The playwright leaves it to the imagination of each audience member to end his play for him. It is both unfair and a bit unprofessional to leave things as he does. We don’t need to know what will happen to each and every member of this highly dysfunctional family but we do need something, some sense of a solution to at least one set of problems, Gene's at least. Without it we have an evening of laugh-out-loud tragedy that takes us no place but that nostalgic realm of magical realism where we wish Tennessee Williams really could come back and take us to a better place than this.
Jason Asprey as Ronnie; photo: Kevin Sprague
Kate Abbruzzese and Elizabeth Aspenlieder; photo: Kevin Sprague
Jason Asprey & Josh Aaron McCabe; photo: Kevin Sprague
Parasite Drag plays in repertory at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through September 2. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353.