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Dead Certain

Chekov’s Gun Control (Or Lack Thereof)

David Denby, writing in The New Yorker on March 5th of this year, commented on the recent trend in films of deploying increasingly complex, overlapping, fractured narratives. Think Memento, Pulp Fiction, Babel, and Amores Perros. It’s not only a film trend though, and it’s actually been going on for several decades -- or more if you look back to the early twentieth century.

One might wonder if this is something of an evolutionary imperative -- do we need complex, multilayered narratives in our entertainment in order to make sense of our complex, multilayered modern lives? British playwright Marcus Lloyd has taken narrative to a new level of art in his first stage play "Dead Certain", originally produced in 1999 in England, and presented in San Francisco at the Off Market Theater.

Elizabeth, a chirpy, bossy paraplegic, ex-dancer, and ostensible budding playwright with a mind like a steel trap, has hired Michael, a handsome, charming off-off-Broadway actor with the slightest continental accent and earnest, deferential affect, and invited him to her flat one evening under the pretext (or not) of getting him to read her new play. Blood and firearms appear immediately, but things seem innocent enough for the first ten minutes or so (the blood, which turns out to be fake, is from a harmless accident -- apparently -- and the guns are fake -- or are they?)

Then they start to get weird, and weirder, and weirder still. It turns out Elizabeth seems to only have the barest outline of a play put together and doesn’t quite seem to get how actors work with scripts. Michael patiently explains his limits, only to have them immediately challenged by Elizabeth, who despite her bubbly warmth, insists on calling all the shots (in every possible sense of the expression).

Just when we begin to suspect she’s hired him simply to seduce him (the first scene they try out is a kissing scene), she brings him back to the beginning of her script, which turns out to be the first ten minutes of the play we’ve just witnessed, word for word. Uh-oh. What’s happening, we’re thinking, along with Michael, who begins to smell a rat (or could that be a cat?) As his anger and suspicion build, Elizabeth lets him out and reels him back in, always two or three tricks up her sleeve ahead of her hapless victim, her cheerful patter strategically laced with murky insinuations, nasty barbs and sly little slips that leave a sour aftertaste.

“You are quite susceptible to suggestion,” she proclaims to the befuddled actor. Anyone else would conclude that this chick was totally whack and get the hell out on the double, but Michael’s vanity, curiosity, desperation, and eventually his fear keep him locked in this deadly end game. “Don’t do it!” we want to yell at him, “Don’t listen to her!” And yet, a minute later, we’re thinking “Hmmm…that was a brilliant stroke of plot on her part -- maybe she is just a talented budding playwright after all, and maybe a damn good one at that.” Are we also being tricked into blatantly admiring the actual playwright?

Mr. Lloyd plays with the structure of this work like it’s a new toy: it’s like a series of nested Chinese box puzzles, each more complex than the last. Every turn of the action changes the game entirely. Almost immediately, we sense that every tiny detail -- the dialog the set, the action, the costumes -- demands our attention, like we’re CSI agents looking for clues to a crime before it’s committed. This has the effect of turning everything in the play into a Chekov’s gun.

And to top off the bedeviling intricacy, the real guns in the play are pointed out (early on of course) by Elizabeth, the playwright, who has a line like this: “there’s some kind of rule about guns…if you introduce them early on…oh I forget.” She hasn’t forgotten a thing, except perhaps the most important thing…but of course I am officially prohibited by the universal code of critical ethics from revealing too much more about the action, especially the ending.

The narrative really is the hero of the play -- it’s the third character, and the two actors move it along so masterfully that you begin to lose all your bearings, but find yourself strangely enjoying the confusion. Losing your bearings usually leads to boredom, but in your confusion you’re actually empathizing with Michael, who is just as confused as we are about what’s real and what’s not. This is a play within a play within a play…to the point where you lose track of the original context and get caught up in the action, which all along seems to be controlled completely by Elizabeth. She and Michael are locked in a deadly duet, the kind of Titanic end-game power struggle that we see in Sam Shepard’s "True West".

This type of vehicle can only succeed with virtuosic acting and directing, and Diana Brown’s Elizabeth and Andrey Esterlis’ Michael are perfectly tuned, timed, and in sync. I marveled at their ability to memorize massive amounts of rapid-fire dialog while fully inhabiting their characters with beautifully controlled and modulated delivery. It’s also brilliantly produced and directed by Mr. Esterlis -- it would appear that he’s actually pulling the strings after all, in reality (if you still believe in reality after this play). The set and lighting are also perfectly balanced and enhance the chilling impact of this excellent production, and the small black box theater gives the piece an intimacy and sense of danger that makes your palms sweaty. A standing ovation for this deadly jewel of a play.

Dead Certain
Runs through June
At the Off-Market Theater
Tickets: $20-30
http://www.deadcertain.net