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Hunter Gatherers

Meat, Murder, and the Rest

It’s an inarguable fact -- food and sex go hand in hand. You can’t, after all, envision a successful seduction sans the edibles, or an orgiastic Roman bacchanal without the proper libations, could you? That’s why we have so many foreign films in which scenes of voluptuous passion are paired with images of exotic feasts and savory larders, and why we have so many websites devoted to the fetish known as sploshing (if you aren’t familiar with the term, look it up, by all means.) And if food and sex go hand in hand, meat is the ne plus ultra of primal urges, a truth that playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb has ingeniously captured in “Hunter Gatherers”.

“Hunter Gatherers” is the first full length play from Killing My Lobster, San Francisco’s beloved troupe of sketch comics and quipsters. Nachtrieb, who’s also a Killing My Lobster member, has described the piece as an investigation of mortality, a peek into social rituals that act as thin veneers separating one’s inner artist and inner beast. The play is also a fascinating and almost incongruously wonder-filled treatise on the magic of corporeality, the marvel of the human who “lives, eats, fucks, and reacts”, sometimes to the chagrin of his more urbane neighbor.

Aptly enough, the comedy begins on a sinister note, with a blood sacrifice. The über-masculine Richard (a voluble, imposing Jon Wolanske) peers into a cardboard box in the middle of his living room, as if in telepathic communication with the unseen thing inside it that occasionally bleats and jumps around. Yep, it’s alive. Richard then proceeds to inveigle his wife Pam (Melanie Case), a tentative, birdlike woman with mild manners, into helping him kill the lamb, insisting that it’s a necessary rite (he’s a foodie with a taste for fresh meat; and besides, they’re expecting company). As Pam squeamishly reaches into the cardboard box and holds down the lamb, Richard pauses, turns to her, and says “I love you.” It’s the first but not last moment of perverse brilliance in the play.

We learn that Pam and Richard are hosts to a special celebration: namely, their two best friends, Wendy (Alexis Levin) and Tom (John Kovacevich), leave their suburban digs and travel to the city to spend one evening out of the year with Pam and Richard. (How the four can be so close yet only break bread once a year is a hilarious testament to the rift that lies between San Franciscans and bridge-and-tunnelers, zealous planning notwithstanding). However, it’s clear from the onset that all is not well in the insular world of the “Fab Four”, as they call themselves. For one, the earthy and flamboyant Wendy persistently berates her sterile, professorly husband Tom for stuff as trivial as his parking habits. And Tom is forced to undergo a habitual rite of emasculation whenever he encounters alpha male Richard -- an unwanted and blatantly homoerotic wrestling match in which he’s forced to say uncle and deem Richard the “strongest man.”

Clearly, Wendy and Richard are the respective anima and animus of the primal urges that Nachtrieb not so subtly hints at in his script, while the more timid Tom and Pam stand off to the sidelines in both admiration and fear of their spouses. In fact, while Wendy thrills over the fact that Richard killed dinner right in his living room, Pam obsesses over the stain it left on the living room rug, and Tom mutters disapprovingly about “health code violations.” The tension of these unlikely pairings increases when we find out that the incestuous clique went to high school together. In fact, one of the subtexts of the play is resistance to the constraints of adulthood, which are mitigated by nostalgia. Wendy reminisces on prom, while Richard still relates to Tom the same way he did when they were teenagers (in unabashed displays of masculine bravado, that is).

The drama comes to a head when Richard and Wendy decide to retire to the kitchen, leaving Tom and Pam outside to speculate on their spouses’ behavior. In the course of two hours, the couples’ neuroses give way to sundry revelations (not the least being that Wendy wants Richard to impregnate her), threats of sodomy, allusions to cannibalism, bad dancing, revenge ploys, and the repudiation of all the niceties that hunker awkwardly on the surface. And naturally, the persistent allusions to “juicy, powerful, fertile” meat are compounded with the increasingly bestial tenor of the play. Sex and food have their final apotheosis in the character of Richard, who regresses all the way back to his mother’s teat as life-affirming paeans to meat and nature give way to death. Even the set begins to unravel, as if it were too flimsy to withstand the passions it contains.

The couples, who are ostensibly well-off, can hardly be seen as displaying pure survival instincts. (Richard and Pam live in a chic loft apartment with minimalist furniture and abstract tribal sculpture, for one.) However, the drama and doing away with decorum certainly have their roots in sociobiology and the individual’s self-interested desire to conquer and propagate the species.

Richard and Wendy inhabit the same side of the coin -- blatant self-interest and scorn for their too-sensitive spouses. Richard ridicules Tom, asking him to “show me a consequence I can feel,” while Wendy unapologetically uses Pam’s kindness to manipulate her. Wolanske cuts a fine figure as the creepily upbeat Richard (particularly in the scene that has him emerging from the kitchen, aproned and positioned with a cleaver), a quasi-new agey “stallion” who grins and gloats and makes self-aggrandizing toasts to love and friendship. He’s liberal in his views on sexuality and his ravenous love of instinct, uttering memorable one-liners like “We took life by the balls and swallowed” or “Let’s be fertilized by the cock of life.” Levin is likewise uproariously brilliant as earth mama Wendy, who muses on the wonders of the body; her prime moment comes when she channels Richard’s raw energy in a silent, painfully restrained simulation of orgasm.

Kovacevich is quietly convincing as the repressed yet indignant milk-toast Tom, who recites a litany of lame revenge ploys against Wendy and Richard that he’ll never carry out. But the play truly belongs to Case, whose Pam is both droll and lamentable as she sternly reprimands Tom’s suspicions that Wendy and Richard are having sex in the kitchen. Pam could just as easily have been relegated to the role of poor, stupid damsel -- but Nachtrieb demonstrates the most range with her character, whose goodness (viewed as a lack of courage by the other three) actually ends up redeeming her.

The entrance to the theater is dotted with fake MySpace profiles for each of the characters and postcards which query, “Are you a Pam?” “Are you a Wendy?” “Are you a Tom,” and “Are you a Richard?” Indeed, the characters can be viewed as both archetypes and specific manifestations of evolution’s final mystery. The play goads us into asking ourselves: Can we answer to the call of the flesh while trying to be good people who actually take the feelings of others into consideration? Nachtrieb seems to suggest that extreme behavior, illustrated in passive-aggressive wimp Tom and ruthless sensualists Wendy and Richard, is probably not a good idea. Pam, who breaks through her own barriers in a particularly memorable sex scene that has her manically chanting, “We are alive, we are alive!” may well personify the closest solution to the conundrum of nature or nurture. And while you may come away from “Hunter Gatherers” without much of an appetite, you’ll certainly feel alive too.

“Hunter Gatherers” runs through July 9th
at the Thick House theater
Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7pm
Tickets are $20-25