Bright Lights, Dark Highway

Never mind the lush stagecraft and atmospheric bliss that make up most of The Debate Society’s production Cape Disappointment; you’ll probably be laughing long before the first lighting cue. As Hanna Bos and Paul Thureen gleefully rattle off cuckoo tourism slogans about Detroit (such as “When you’re here, you’re in Detroit!”), you’ll say a quiet thank you to yourself or whoever dragged you unwillingly to Performance Space 122. That’s because Cape Disappointment doesn’t actually disappoint – in fact, it’s the best play by The Debate Society yet. Like some inbred lovechild of Richard Foreman and Robert Altman (who is babysat on the weekends by David Lynch), Cape Disappointment employs imaginative theatrical effects to construct a scatological narrative about aberrant behavior in a bygone, supposedly squeaky-clean era. The action of three unrelated stories takes place on the dark roads surrounding a dilapidated drive-in theater (scrupulously designed by Karl Allen), where old timey glitz has crumbled into ageless junk. Hitchhiking with a stranger, rendezvousing with creepy locals, out of gas – at each turn, the characters find themselves thrust into horror movie scenarios that morph, like the ramshackle drive-in, into meditations on better days long gone.

While the script, by Bos and Thureen, utilizes tangential zigzags and sometimes elusive plot devices, the storyline is far more coherent than previous Debate Society ventures. Particularly effective is the use of sunny voice-over narration in the segment titled “The Pedophile and the Little Girl,” which skews the creepy scenario with a children’s book kind of sweetness that becomes endearing, even touching. In all three storylines, we live with these loopy, at times repulsive characters long enough to care about them and whatever it is they’ve lost. And they’ve all lost something – a home, a pet bird or just their way along the winding highway. For Aunt Gracie (Pamela Payton-Wright), who is being chauffeured by her niece and nephew, there is nostalgia for her hometown of Sisterville, which once looked forward to the economic boons of a man-made lake. But the lake never came to Sisterville and all of the marinas and scuba equipment stores banking on the future business dried out. You see, in Cape Disappointment characters can even be wistful for the good times that never happened.

Director Oliver Butler and show’s designers have outdone themselves with the show’s staging and ambient elements. Along with Allen’s thorough scenic design, lighting designer Mike Riggs’ piercing assortment of distant headlights and rotating lighthouse beacons deserves much esteem. Thanks to the innovative design, the show can peak furtively out of the shadows and through the floorboards or just bounce in the dark with a flickering flashlight – you only catch glimpses of action and are allowed to fill in the blanks yourself. In one compelling, but infuriating scene, two lost children crunch along through the dark woods, but then run screaming in terror when they see something looming large above them. We never see it. The buzz and pop of period radio stations designed by Nathan Leigh scores most of the obscure events, completing Butler’s moody jigsaw of sensory information.

Co-authors Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen where typically absorbing in their various roles. Bos’s wailing reaction to a dead turkey is hysterical, but the best scene for both her and Thureen is the final, unmoved moments of “The Pedophile and the Little Girl.” Michael Cyril Creighton and Pamela Payton-Wright both make worthy contributions as well, most notably Creighton’s wide-eyed movie buff salesman and Peyton-Wright’s softly reflective Aunt Gracie.

A singular experience of high style and excellent craftsmanship, there is really only one thing to say about the transcendent Cape Disappointment : “When you’re seeing it, you’re seeing Cape Disappointment!”

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