Monday, February 6, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "A Behanding in Spokane" at Cygnet Theatre

Need Hand, Will Travel

Cygnet’s dark and disturbing “Behanding” is not for the faint of heart

By Donnie Matsuda

You have to hand it to Cygnet Theatre: their devilishly demented production of “A Behanding In Spokane” is bloody good.

In the Southern California premiere of Martin McDonagh’s 2010 play, Cygnet has pulled out all the stops (and quite a few bloody, severed appendages) to bring this psychotic thriller to pulse-pounding life.

Mike Sears (at left) and Jeffrey Jones (at right) with Kelly Iversen and Vimel in the background. Photo by Daren Scott.

Oddly enough, “Behanding” is the first of the Irish playwright’s plays to be set in the US, and more specifically, the setting is one of the grittiest and grimiest hotel rooms in an unnamed city in small town America. It is there that we meet the perverted protagonist of the piece, Carmichael, a man on a mission to find the severed hand that was so wrongly sliced from his wrist nearly 27 years prior. Armed with a gun, a can of gasoline, and a suitcase that’s, shall we say, a bit heavy-handed, Carmichael is delirious with frustration as he becomes more and more desperate to find the piece of flesh (albeit now withered and useless) that is rightfully his. But, he’s in luck, because there is a couple – two twenty-something amateur con artists named Marilyn and Toby – who claim to have his severed hand and are more than willing to sell it to him. Unfortunately, when Carmichael realizes the hand they have isn’t his, things get pretty ugly and the rest of the story plays out like a Craigslist deal gone bad….very, very bad.

The four character play, which includes some comic relief by the hotel’s clueless and oddball desk clerk, Mervyn, is incredibly light fare in terms of storyline, but it works quite well as a character-driven vignette piece that is much heavier on the plotting than on the plot itself. Still, one can’t help but be riveted to these four pathetic souls as they act and react to extreme situations beyond their control: Carmichael still haunted by the hoodlums who held his wrist on the train tracks and took his hand after it got chopped off by a train, Marilyn and Toby hysterically trying everything in their power to disengage a can of gasoline that is rigged to explode, and Mervyn trying to appear tough and unfazed as the barrel of a gun is shoved into the back of his head. Truly, McDonagh’s play digs deep into the human psyche.

Mike Sears as Mervyn. Photo by Daren Scott.

As the domineering and utterly violent Carmichael, Jeffrey Jones is somewhat a study in contrasts. On one hand, he is cool, calm and collected in his sharp business suit as he chats with his mother on the phone or tries to reason with the befuddled hotel clerk. On the other hand, he is prone to some terrifying outbursts of violence and when he grits his teeth, presses the barrel of his gun to the back of someone’s head, and squeezes, you may be prompted to cover your eyes or run out of the theatre. Mike Sears is equally brilliant and twisted as the eccentric, hippie-looking hotel clerk, Mervyn. He is probably the most sympathetic character of the bunch and Sears has a gift for playing the socially inept misfit. Meanwhile, Vimel is appropriately frantic, fearful, and just plain real as lives-in-the-moment Toby. And while Kelly Iversen does well in her role as the trashy sexpot Marilyn, she occasionally oscillates a bit too broadly between her moments of lucid problem-solving and drugged-up delusion.

Kelly Iversen as Marilyn and Vimel as Toby. Photo by Daren Scott.

Director Lisa Berger has a perverse penchant for staging black comedies and with this twisted and dark dramedy she (single-handedly, perhaps?) earns her title as master of the macabre. Balancing the play’s droll, dry wit with the shock and horror of some pretty sick scenarios, Berger has a good feel for the pace at which McDonagh’s scenes should play out: slowly building tension with more egregious threats of violence, then suddenly breaking the tension with an off-beat one-liner or an unexpected distraction (the phone ringing or an eerie knock at the hotel room door, for instance). And aiding her in bringing this demented tale to life is set designer Christopher Ward. His gritty and grimy hotel room set is a perfect backdrop for the trashy, terror-filled action that plays out in the play’s intermission-free 90 minutes. And special kudos go to prop designer Bonnie L. Durben for supplying nearly a stage full of incredibly life-like severed appendages of all ages and ethnicities. For that, she most definitely deserves a hand.

While “Behanding” is certainly not the kind of play you’d expect to see in bright and sunny San Diego, Cygnet should be commended for going out on a limb (both literally and figuratively) with this edgy, frightening, oddball piece of work. At the very least, with its four riveting actors, shocking themes, and explosive violence, it is an evening of theatre you will not soon forget.

Things to know before you go: A Behanding in Spokane plays at Cygnet Theatre through February 19th, 2012. Running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission. The play contains strong language, racial slurs, violence, and explosive fun (including loud gunshots). Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 337-1525 or visit


…listen to director Lisa Berger and two of the cast members of “Behanding” as they are interviewed by KPBS-FM. You can download the podcast here:

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