A sheriff department with a sheriff on perpetual vacation. An artist with a penchant for photographing nudes and pastries. A daffy old mayor. A brilliant private eye. The community of Sentinal, Oklahoma, as depicted in Sneaky Snake Productions' Detectives and Victims, currently playing at The Brick Theater in Williamsburg, is home to a collection of likable oddballs. Described in publicity materials as "two independent and interlocking plays," Detectives and Victims, which are designed to be seen in any order, play in rotating rep under the title A Brief History of Murder. Like the cult David Lynch TV show Twin Peaks, A Brief History of Murder, by Richard Lovejoy, addresses violent crime in a small town America by coloring a standard detective drama formula with shades of fantasy. As both Victims and Detectives spiral toward their bloody conclusions, the plays take harder turns into the supernatural. With two plays, a twenty member ensemble, a couple of musical numbers, multiple set changes and some very gory costume details, A Brief History of Murder constitutes a highly ambitious project. Under the direction of Ivanna Cullinan, the large cast delivers a consistently fun performance, even as the plays fail to deliver a neatly solved crime.
Neither Victims nor Detectives fully explains the mysteries and murders on its own. It would be enormously exciting and a delightful playwriting feat if, taken in tandem, the two plays worked together to reveal one another's secrets and render the full picture more clear. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen. Neither does the two-part production wholly emphasize varied perspectives. Although Detectives and Victims ostensibly focus on each play's titular characters, there is a lot of overlap between them. The two-part production most often plays less like two pieces of a master puzzle than like an experiment in staging alternate drafts of a singular script.
It's lucky, then, that Lovejoy is a playwright with a gift for writing good dialogue and comedic zingers. "I really can't afford any further library fines," says a Local Avid Reader (Lovejoy, in a brief cameo) upon discovering the town librarian brutally murdered with her heart and eyes ripped out, "I have a son." Indeed, some of the most obviously neat aspects to the double-billed production are the scenes we see twice; recognition of the familiar scenes is fun mostly because the jokes in them are pretty great. Under Cullinan's direction, the stage perspective is flipped in the alternate productions, a nice touch.
Cullinan deserves special credit for keeping each play under control, even as the plays themselves descend into zaniness. Both Victims and Detectives run just over an hour and half; each play begins with a clearly stated premise and identifiable subplots which grow murky as the plays grow more heavily mythological until it becomes clear that the mysteries have spun too far out of control for the scripts to explicate. In the hands of a lesser director, such a realization might cue audience restlessness, but Cullinan reigns the production in so tightly that its descent into carnage signals not only dilution of an otherwise cohesive plot but a joyously maudlin production choice. She also demonstrates an impressive ability to keep an enormous ensemble on the same stylistic page, an especially important quality for a production evocative of genre fiction.
The majority of A Brief History of Murder's characters appear in both Vicitims and Detectives, making the second play audiences see -- whichever play that is -- full of warmly familiar faces. It's crucial to the productions' ability to build suspense that audiences like the characters; we need to care whether they live or die and whether they are good or evil. Happily, we do. As the only obvious predator of the production, Timothy McCown Reynolds delivers a coolly creepy performance. Based on the Norse mythological wolf Fenrus, McCown Reynolds skulks about the playing space. "Historically, until this moment, you never missed a thing. Now," he tells a startled former agent of the KBG, "you rarely miss a thing," with a delivery that makes the observation as devastating as any of the gruesome murders depicted onstage. Other standout performers include Kent Meister as a chillaxed artist whose world unexpectedly crumbles, Jesse Wilson as a debilitatingly nervous rookie cop, and Adam Swiderski as a cagey KGB agent turned nude model.
While the large cast bolsters the productions' boisterous, epic aesthetic, both scripts would benefit from some slimming down of a few superfluities. A vacationing marine and her doting husband who fancy themselves detectives (a comedic duo of Sheila Joon and Salvatore Brienik) are among the few characters to appear in Victims only and their presence adds little to the production; a cancer diagnosis in Detectives is a distracting admission. The nymphish Portal sisters, (Sarah Malinda Engelke, Kathryn Lawson, and Eve Udesky), dressed in confusing shiny gold dresses, possess otherwordly powers of an unexplained sort; their last name is insufficient articulation of their identities or their purpose in the play.
A Brief History of Murder's production team gives the town of Sentinal, Oklahoma a homey feel. Costume designer Jim Hammer dresses the characters in comfy Westernesque clothes that contrast nicely with the play's wonderfully silly nude model scenes. Chris Chappell's original music and sound design adds a nice dynamic, infusing otherwise light scenes with a sense of the ominous. As the production's gore and effects designer, Laura Moss does nice work that celebrates the productions' roots in Grand Guignol theater.
Sneaky Snake Producions is an inventive theater company whose last production, Adventure Quest, also written by Lovejoy, traded on the absurd limitations that make up the worlds of video game quests. A Brief History of Murder draws inspiration from the considerably less limited worlds of ancient mythology. The result is a pair of plays that lose a little in their overexuberance but whose crafted enthusiasm for their material is itself a source of delight.