Killer Theatre

The most erotic image I have seen on the stages of Phoenix can be ogled at Playwright's Workshop Theatre on Seventh Street.

The time is the present; the place is a federal prison. The setting is a spare, clean prison cell illuminated by a single industrial lamp that hangs over a gray metal table. In the shadowy confines of steel bars and concrete, a lithe man with dark, Dionysian ringlets sinks to his knees before a fellow prisoner. He tauntingly leans back on his haunches, holding aloft a videocassette. He smiles like a horny aardvark, then a pink, velvety tongue begins to emerge from between his voluptuous lips. Amazingly long, his tongue uncurls with lascivious pleasure until it is fully erect, glistening with moisture.

His dancing eyes focused on his cellmate, he slowly licks the length of the videocassette along the edge, tasting the promise of all seven-and-a-quarter inches, before he slides the lubricated cassette into a VCR. The moment sizzles with sexual heat.

The actor is Tony Trapasso playing the sensuously mysterious character Cain, whose mockingly subdued performance delivers more innuendo than an episode of Absolutely Fabulous. The play is Edge Project's production of Brenda Edwards' electrifying new drama Duel Pardoning. If you like your theatre bold, intelligent and evocative, you won't want to miss this one.

The videocassette is the film 91U2 Weeks, which has been brought to the prisoner, Don Baker, as a bribe for his cooperation with a psychiatric social worker, who has come to delve into the psyche of a murderer.

Those are the bare facts that incarcerate the searing life of this taut thriller. The plot emerges with such subtle economy that one is barely aware of learning the circumstances hidden beneath the surface. Instead, we focus on the high tension in the room, as moment by moment the mystery unfolds.

To the haunting wail of the blues, an earnest young woman in a tailored suit is revealed standing at a metal table, her head drooping under the stark overhead light. She wearily raises her head when she hears the outside approach to a steel door with a small viewing window, from which an intense light spills into the darkened cell. Her face is worn with the concern of the conscientious. Behind her is a horizontal mirror on the wall, behind which we sense unseen eyes watching every move. This is Linda McClain.

After the metallic-clank sound of chains being removed, the security door opens cautiously and a large ursine man appears in a nondescript blue-gray jumpsuit with black numbers stenciled over his heart. He has dark-blond, curly hair and he wears glasses.

He appears to be middle-aged. He could be a service-station attendant or a librarian. His eyes dart quickly, assessing his situation. This caged man is alert to every nuance. His intelligence is palpable. This is Don Baker, sentenced to life imprisonment.

McClain is here to interview him with the hope of understanding the criminal mind, and thereby to help guide others away from the kind of choices that have brought Baker to this terminal fate. He is sardonically contemptuous of her intentions.

As a lifer, he has nothing to lose by cooperating with her study, but also little to gain except respite from prison routine. She proposes to bring him videotapes and books in return for his acquiescence. He strikes a deal for the previously mentioned videotape of the erotic Mickey Rourke-Kim Basinger potboiler.

Reacting to McClain's use of the term "dysfunctional family," Baker relates a tale of a cellmate whose continual habit of masturbation drove him up the wall. This man had a stepfather who sodomized him until he severed the man's penis and stuffed it down his throat. "Now that," Baker tells McClain, "is a dysfunctional family!"

McClain demands to know if he likes women, to which Baker replies: "Well, I haven't been in here long enough to prefer men!" He professes to like Kim Basinger because of her blond hair and large breasts.

The wry Baker proves himself intellectually sly and lightning-fast. He is charming, in a shy sort of way. He mimics a James Stewart drawl that indicates how often he has been condemned to see It's a Wonderful Life in the limited fare offered by the prison library.

Digging into why he never was able to establish a relationship with a woman outside prison, McClain elicits the howl: "I am not a fag!" from Baker.

In the midst of this low-key realism, mysterious flashes of light occur, as if from a flash bulb. Sidelights of alternating blue and red fade in and out. And, most strangely, from the rear of the stage, we can see a dark man in an adjoining cell as he eavesdrops on the interview. Although he is physically isolated, his piercing eyes haunt the scene with a ghostly subtext.

In the second scene, Baker and Cain are alone, sharing mess from a prison tray. Cain gobbles it up, as they discuss the perils of undertaking a project, considering the consequences of what happened "last time." The relationship between the two prisoners is enigmatic, though clearly symbiotic. Do they both exist independently, or is one an alter ego of the other? Although realistic in style of dialogue and character, there is a sense of the kind of unease weaved by Pinter at his very best, when incipient violence seems inevitable. Are these two men lovers, rivals or schizophrenic sides of an individual?

The third scene reveals that McClain has grown to appreciate both her adversary's keen genius and his inventive fictions. The masturbation story cannot be corroborated by prison officials. Although biographical research details Baker's relationship with his own abusive, construction-working father, Freud does not provide the true underpinnings of this play which transcends the psychological cliche.

When McClain presses Baker to confess whether he had sexual desires for his own mother, he dismisses this easy psychologizing with: "No, Doc! Is that what screwed me up?"

McClain double-crosses Baker by bringing him the Malkovich/Sinise version of Of Mice and Men, for which Baker is justifiably upset. But McClain's method of investigation centers on a murderer's response to the question about whether Steinbeck's George should have killed Lenny.

Baker predictably claims his innocence, but McClain persists in investigating his previous incarceration in the Iowa State Reformatory, and why he went wrong upon release.

Eventually, a slow evolution of plot reveals that, while in the Iowa Reformatory, Baker fell in love with a prison reformer named Pam Anderson, who was married to another man. Baker's claim is that he was framed by a rogue deputy who took him to see Anderson upon his release. The deputy murdered Anderson; he testified against Baker. It is for this brutal murder that Baker now serves a life sentence.

By the time this information has been unearthed, we are totally wrapped up in the mystery: Who did the crime, and why? The answers are convincing and surprising.

Brenda Edwards has written a complex human drama in a style that is theatrical and yet deeply grounded in believable details. Her imaginative technique is dazzling, while the dialogue is succinct and eloquent. Her sense of structure shows a masterly technique of playwriting, while her dialogue is fresh, witty and fundamentally convincing.

Director Jere Luisi has matched the logic and the stylistic flights of the play with an imagination fully equipped to accomplish its challenges. Most important, he has conjured very detailed, believable performances from his actors. It is a seamless production, all the more remarkable for its simplicity.

Michelle Konevich is giving the performance of her career as McClain. She is restrained, grounded and yet impulsively explosive. Her work has risen to a level far beyond what we saw in Shadowbox or To Kill a Mockingbird last season.

Best of all is the modulated, layered, four-dimensional characterization by Raymond King Shurtz as the central convict. His performance is so persuasive and detailed that it's hard to remember he's acting. Not since the stunning tour de force by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs have we had an opportunity to understand the intricacies of so complex a criminal.

As for the play, it is the best of its genre I have seen since the award-winning Medal of Honor Rag 20 years ago in New York. It is remarkable that a Phoenix group such as Edge Project has had the vision and loyalty to nurture and develop such an extraordinary achievement. Let us hope that the support of the Phoenix audience will justify that devotion.


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