Sheila Callaghan and Kip Fagan are on the same page. Each moment in Roadkill Confidential is exquisitely crafted, stunning in both its heady intellectual content and its vivid, vibrant theatrical construction. Rarely have I seen a writer and director (and design team and cast) working in such tight accord. The upside of that seamless integration of elements is that there is little this group can't do onstage.
So I am left wondering a bit why they would choose to do this.
Callaghan's play follows Trevor Pratt, a visual artist infamous for a photo essay detailing the gruesome auto accident that took the life of her art school professor's wife. He was also her lover, and gave Trevor the photos to exhibit in front of his six year old son. We are told that this creepy back story is part of the art, as was the incessant reporting and media coverage that resulted. The idea is that Trevor (and in a certain way Callaghan) are pointing an angry finger at a culture obsessed with making entertainment out of death.
Tabloid stardom has unmoored everyone in the Pratt household - from the brilliant Trevor (who is desperately seeking to top her first piece), to her willingly sycophantic husband (an academic whose career is based on her work), to - most chillingly - the now 14 year old son (maniacally focused on being famous, again).
What makes all this into great theatre is the FBI Man, a fourth-wall breaking, eye-patch-wearing fanatical patriot brought in to catch Trevor in the act of using a certain chemical agent (designated as a biological weapon in the war on terror) in her new art piece. The FBI Man revels in his mission, extending it past protection of flag and country, and well into masochistic wallowing in the bottomless depths of the human soul. He and Trevor are a perfect match – two admitted sociopaths who see their extreme behavior as a struggle to combat the numbing effect of modern life. Their cat-and-mouse seduction (brilliantly played out via a live video feed from the tiny eavesdropping camera the FBI Man has planted in her apartment) builds the play to a horrific, but intensely intriguing, climax.
So, yeah, it’s complicated, especially when you throw in the husband’s high-brow art theory explanations of the meaning of Trevor’s (and again, Callaghan’s) work and the grating but entertaining star-struck neighbor who meets an untimely end. But in Fagan’s hands, it’s all crystal clear and compelling, with a dry macabre sense of humor ideal for its intended downtown hipster audience.
The cast is also pitch perfect. Danny Mastrogiogio's comically gruff but emotionally twisted FBI Man is a brilliant construct, matched in sadistic wit with Rebecca Henderson’s strident and magnetic Trevor; the play rests on the idea that these two are four steps ahead of everyone else, and the actors are up to the task: minutely detailed, quietly confident and in total control of their stage presence. Alex Anfanger does a nice double turn, first as Trevor’s comically bohemian lover and then, eerily, her psychically scarred stepson, and Polly Lee nails every pop-culture banality that issues from Melanie (the ill-fated neighbor’s) mouth. The design work, particularly Peter Ksander’s sterile white set and Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty’s restrained and performer-centric video ably drives home the corrosive effect of the mediated image on our collective humanity.
“So, David,” you say, “that’s a lot of big and complimentary words there. What’s your problem?”
Despite the name of this website, theatre is hard. To get complicated and emotionally resonant ideas across onstage takes skill and talent. Callaghan and Fagan are two of the most exciting theatre artists working today, and they make the whole business look easy. I am in general agreement with their central thesis, that our constant bombardment by mediated images of death, dismemberment and chaos makes us numb to our family, our community and ourselves and leaves us desperately trying to make meaning out of our lives by seeing them reflected in the many digital screens around us. I can even go the next step and say that it might be the artist’s job is to hold up these ugly truths so that we as a society might find ways of combating our worst instincts.
What I want to propose (and remember, this is editorial; let the record show that I think this is a really great show, and if you like intellectually compelling and skillfully crafted theatre you should totally see it) is that the best way that the artist can bring us away from the worst in ourselves is to celebrate and express that which is best in us. The artists involved in this show have the ability to make something that lifts us up, exalts our nobility, and inspires us to be better people. Roadkill Confidential forces us to recognize the evil in ourselves by showing us how we participate in evil things. It rubs our nose in the filth of our own daily lives. Like its protagonist, it participates in the destructive cycle even as it critiques it.
Maybe its old-fashioned, maybe it’s even sentimental, but I’d like to see what Callaghan and Fagan have to say about what we do right, and how good we can be.
(Roadkill Confidential plays at the 3LD Art & Technology Center, 80 Greenwich Street, through September 28th. Performances are Thursdays through Tuesdays at 8pm, with an additional performances on Saturday September 25 at 4pm. Tickets are $25 for adults and $18 for students and can be purchased online at TheaterMania.com or by calling 212-352-3101. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Train access via the #1 or R to Rector Street. For more information about Clubbed Thumb call 212-802-8007 or visit ClubbedThumb.org.)