The American Demons
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Skipper Chong Warson, Fri., Sept. 29, 2000
The American Demons: With a Bang
The Blue Theater,
through September 30
Running Time: 1 hr, 40 min
On April 20, 1999, students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked nonchalantly into Columbine High School, fired guns and lobbed homemade bombs throughout the school, and killed 12 students and one teacher before committing suicide.
In 1871, Fyodor Dostoevksy wrote The Possessed, basing it in the real-life story of one Serge Nechaev, who murdered one of his own revolutionary followers on November 21, 1869, for fear that he would betray them, in a small town outside St. Petersburg.
These two worlds, though far apart in time and seemingly so in circumstance, become almost impossible to differentiate in The American Demons, a collaborative production of Salvage Vanguard Theater and Deborah Hay Dance Co.
The history of this project is chronicled in an excellent document included with the show's program, from SVT co-artistic director Jason Neulander's reading of The Possessed in July 1998, through an "intense 18-day period" in July 2000, during which the collaborative team escapes to Wimberley, Texas, and they "work six days a week, nearly 12 hours a day" creating, to the premiere of the show in September 2000.
The show itself begins with a bang. Literally. A live gunshot resonates through the space while a single white envelope flutters from above the stage. From there, The American Demons whirlwinds through stage pictures and scenes, sometimes resembling news bulletins and sound bites in its timing and its feeling. The glimpses offered into this world cover much ground, moving from a dialogue on "the reasons people don't dare kill themselves" with the creeping entrance of a table set with tea for two to the destruction of the 6-foot-tall crosses for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at a memorial in Clement Park, across from Columbine High in Littleton. Brian Rohrbough, father of one of the dead, said, "We never ever honor a murderer in the same place as the memorial for his victims."
The centerpiece of The American Demons is a carousel within the structure of the play, by which each performer has a moment and monologue with a handgun -- especially chilling is Andrea Moon's explanation and demonstration of "how to eat a mango" -- after which an outline is created around the performer's body. My playwriting professor always warned me about putting a weapon onstage. "Make sure it pays off," he said. With the way they do so here, these four writer-performers are due the state lottery. At least.
With its tragic, almost manic timing, The American Demons becomes an arm by which to tell a story, the story of what 20th-century America and 19th-century Russia have reared and sent out into the world. The most frightening part of this story is that those products, though created over a century apart, are not so different. In The Possessed, Dostoevsky wrote, "They did not know whom and how to judge, they could not agree on what was evil and what was good ... [they] killed each other out of some sort of senseless evil anger." Over 130 years later, on videotapes Harris and Klebold made before their assault on Columbine, Harris exclaims, "I hate the [expletive] humans." Klebold concurs: "It's humans that I hate."
With an underscore of the Golden Arm Trio's haunting music, a backdrop that resembles a Mark Rothko piece, and the outstanding craft of Dan Dietz, Neulander, Deborah Hay and Moon, eerie is an understatement for The American Demons.