This is why I go to the theater and love it so much, because of productions like Lisa Teichner’s “Black Comedy/ ‘Dentity Crisis.” There is an adventurous spirit at hand, a willingness to push buttons, send up conventions and experiment with the possibilities of live performance, that immediately endeared me to this work.
Allow me to explain just what this show is: a double bill, with the first show, Peter Shaffer’s “Black Comedy” running an hour and Christopher Durang’s “Dentity Crisis” a mere 20 minutes in length (the slim but eventful running times are just right). “Black Comedy” is about a couple (played by John Williams and Hana Valle) who are expecting company in their apartment when a fuse goes out and they’re immersed in darkness. So is the audience. For minutes on end. We only hear the play. It’s fantastic.
The opening scenes are such a breath of fresh air, providing an altogether new experience for theater goers. Shaffer is the same genius who wrote “Equus,” the theater essential in which actors wearing wire frame masks portray horses and large boxes stand in for conventional sets and even audience seats. The late Shaffer was always an outside-the-box writer and a visionary whose plays challenged audiences as much as the actors. I wonder if performing for what seems like 10-minutes in total darkness is terrifying for an actor, though you wouldn’t guess it from how great the cast is.
If listening to a play and being immersed in a thick void with other theatergoers sounds discomforting, I suggest closing your eyes and treating this early portion like listening to a radio production. For those intrigued by the presentation, note how Williams and Valle completely establish their roles and the tone of the show without any vision.
Eventually, the theater lights come up but the actors are playing their scenes like they’re still in total darkness. As neighbors arrive and the comedy builds from absurd to the totally surreal, we’re seeing the characters struggle to adapt to the darkness and maintain their composure over revelations that challenge their social etiquette.
Various lighting cues provide alterations (a Zippo lighter, a struck match and a flashlight alternate in providing light sources) but the whole thing is a tour de force of carefully timed slapstick, clever banter, manic character work and precise lighting design.
Enough about the lights. Every performance is top notch, as potential caricatures are introduced, only to have each performer leap over the obvious and find the right blend of humor and honesty in their portrayal. Williams’ work is highlighted by many superb physical bits, which he performs so skillfully, I thought a few times that he might have actually hurt himself. Valle is wonderful as his fiancee, Joanna Zamir is a scene stealer as a surprise intruder, Lou Young brings a potential cartoon figure to ferocious life and Vinnie Linares goes full Looney Tunes with a character I kind of adored. Also, keep your eye on Kalani Whitford, whose best moments are in silence, when only the audience can see his train of thought. Then there’s the terrific Carol Lem as the kindly and corruptible Miss Furnival; she concludes her appearance with a killer monolog that had the house justly applauding. Teichner wisely plays down the specificity of the time and place, as the London of the 1960’s setting doesn’t trip up the actors with over-attentive accents.
This the kind of story scenario, with colorful, revolving guests who enter and leave the flat, that could have once provided fodder for a series-best episode of “Three’s Company.” In Shaffer’s hands, it’s smarter, funnier and more inventive than a typical sitcom, allowing the angle of existing in pitch darkness and limited visibility to go as far as it possibly can. We’re seeing how people can be so unhinged when they know others can’t see them. Shaffer’s concept in Teichner’s hands makes a farce feel entirely fresh. This is radical stuff.
After an intermission, the lights go down, going back up again to introduce Faith Harding’s explosive entrance in “Dentity Crisis” (Harding’s fever pitch performance never loses its powerful grip). We meet Jane (Valle again but embodying such a different character, I wasn’t sure I was seeing the same performer from the prior show), who has recently attempted suicide. Jane’s family life is, to put it mildly, terrifying, and kind of hilarious. Her parents (played by Harding and Williams, who astonishes yet again and for entirely different reasons) are visibly disturbed and so, apparently, is her psychiatrist (played by Whitford in a wild turn).
“Dentity Crisis” will, like “Black Comedy,” provide an altogether different experience for most audience members. The laughs are big but the play evokes an unsettling feeling and never coddles the audience for a second. Imagine an early John Waters domestic comedy or Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party.”
Judging from the opening night audience, the reaction to the second and final play is extremely divisive (once it ended, a woman behind me gasped, “That was psychotic”). It’s a daring decision by Teichner to pair those two works, as the confrontational, highly unorthodox manner of the latter could easily undo the goodwill established by the former. “Dentity Crisis” intends to shake audiences up and more than does the trick.
There will be other productions this year that will have bigger casts and more elaborate budgets…that will be forgotten entirely in the weeks following their closing night. “Black Comedy”/”Dentity Crisis” is an experience that theater lovers will be discussing and recalling with admiration for years. Don’t allow yourself to miss out and get left in the dark. Did I mention I loved this show?
Black Comedy/Dentity Crisis is playing at the Pro Arts Playhouse (next to Taco Bell at Azeka’s Marketplace) from March 1st-17th. Tickets are available at proartsmaui.com and 808-463-6550.