Look Out Below

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:13





      DO THEATER ARTISTS ever consider critics when picking titles? The Debate Society’s Cape Disappointment is precisely what I mean—it’s the kind of title that’s tantamount to putting a fresh carcass before a starving dog.Yet the 70minute piece is anything but disappointing.

    Cape Overachieving might have been better. This is the fourth full-length work by the Brooklyn-based company, which has established a reputation for toying with ideas around deconstruction without hurling at the audience all the academic baggage and intellectual gobbledygook that usually comes along with it. Here, the two performer-creators that anchor the group, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, together with director Oliver Butler, examine the phenomenon of the drive-in movie in order to satirize and mourn the paltry state of our nation.With America’s financial collapse—or something close to it— arguably underway, their timing couldn’t be more exquisite. Indeed, what better than to dig out a sunny icon of American pop culture and raise it toward the sky, exposing the many dark truths regarding who we are—or maybe who we were—as a people.

    Much like the drive-in movie experience itself, Cape Disappointment begins with a cartoon.This one is set in the early 20th century in which a couple decked out in Sunday finery, played by Bos and Thureen, feverishly extol the virtues of the city of Detroit.

    Laughter, at first genuine and later saturated with irony, builds as the couple performs the scene from what appears to be a raised platform or construction scaffold at one end of the extremely wide black-box space. It’s not that Butler has gone mad with symbolism (is this the glorification of American industry?), but as the couple’s Motor City musings turn exaggerated and over the top, ridiculous and absurd, mope-rock songs start playing in your head and clinging to your heart, as if you know that behind all that halcyon optimism lies something far less heady.  

    Now it’s on to the piece itself, a series of loosely intertwined vignettes that take their cue from the film genres that used to play in drive-in movies. Unquestionably the best storyline involves actor Michael Cyril Creighton playing the straight-laced older brother to Bos’ prim and reticent younger sister. It’s the pitch of night; they’re driving on an unlit road.They’re supposed to be fetching an aging and kooky aunt, played by noted Broadway actress Pamela Payton-Wright, from a train station. But awful things impede them, some of which are made clear to the audience (they run out of gas), some left to the imagination (was the sister raped?). It’s all very Hitchcockian, sure; it’s also hilarious and horrifying. Later on, Payton-Wright delivers a beautiful monologue that gives shape, sound and soul to a range of American myths, despite the fact that it’s all about a beauty pageant she won in her salad days. The Debate Society’s designers, including Karl Allen (set), Mike Riggs (lighting), Sydney Maresca (costumes) and Nathan Leigh (sound), perform some wonderfully macabre feats: Rarely have creeping pinpricks of light, for example, freighted so much narrative so expertly. And Butler takes full advantage of the sweeping expanse of the space to make Cape Disappointment seem like the paranormal panorama it aspires to be, with a rickety fence doubling as a tiny stage, a small box turning into a semi and a patchwork of branches on the floor serving as the unnerving sound of crunching leaves.The tales that accompany each of the show’s scenic wonders—especially what happens to the unfortunate guys in the semi—are best left to those who view Cape Disappointment, a title that’s unworthy of its heights and its depth. -- Cape Disappointment Through Dec. 7, P.S. 122, 150 1st Ave. (at E. 9th St.), 212-352-3101; times vary, $18.