Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., March 1, 2002
Fugitive Pieces: The Long Side of the TracksHyde Park Theatre,
through March 16
Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min
We're on a road to nowhere, as David Byrne famously sang, but the Salvage Vanguard Theater production of Caridad Svich's Fugitive Pieces is a nowhere road more reminiscent of the Tom Waits milieu. Two vagabonds, Troubled John and Downcast Mary, meet near railroad tracks as they prepare to hop a freight to anywhere other than where they are now. Mary's tough, a young survivor who's been through hell and come out the other side with her eyes narrower and her fists rougher; she's portrayed by Lee Eddy with clipped speech and a no-nonsense front curtaining a soul still tender and tenaciously open to life's fleeting joys. John's been through his own brand of hell -- he may be the abandoned bastard son of a homicidal madman -- but he's been more deeply affected by his past. He's carrying a triple gutload of hunger and fears and brittle vulnerability, and a head filled with fantastic dreams and thwarted desire. Judson Jones shakes life into this harried soul, every flinch and twitch and painful memory playing over his face and through his body as if he were moving through an extended fever dream. What Jones is sometimes required to do is known as chewing the scenery -- but his performance is far more subtle than that. And there's very little scenery.
Set designer Stephen Pruitt has buried the interior of Hyde Park Theatre under what must be a foot or two of thick white gravel. And the usual split seating has been shifted to include a third perspective and a showcase for the accompanying musician. It's upon this plain of shattered rock, within this near arena, that our hobos' journeys take place, that we witness their run-ins with a series of characters destined to twist them further into misery.
Corey Gagne takes on multiple roles -- a scarecrow, a violent grifter, a bullying porn-seller, a religious charlatan -- and embodies them vigorously, howling out their songs and unleashing their brute treacheries with frightful passion. Beverly Bajema is riveting as a broken-down crone, mute (at first) save for her heartfelt cries and whimpers of "Ra-a-a-a-a-a-w!"
Chris Black provides a gorgeous live soundtrack to the show and its bursts of song, hammering his drums, pounding and tapping and brushing his hanging collection of hubcaps, trash can lids, and buckets, rubbing his array of wine glasses to precise effect. The music is reminiscent of later Tom Waits albums, but this is no more a wannabe performance than Waits himself is a poor man's Harry Partch.
There are some problems, though. Foremost of these is the ending: thematically and technically. What it means for our heroes to enter the humongous screen of a drive-in movie -- taking their place among the modern cultural mythos? losing themselves for good in a world of dreams sweeter than their burdened lives? what? -- seems either muddled or trite. Svich's script is so damned good so often, so lyrically evocative a depiction of the circumstances of life's wanderings, that such a terminus seems unworthy of what's come before. And the method of staging this final scene is the horrid misstep in a previously seamless dance of technical directing. Could vertical fabric blinds have been used as a screen instead, so that the actors could walk through it? Could we have been shown something other than the Sesame Street-ish near-near-far progression of images? Director Jason Neulander wrings performances from his actors that are likely to land them in the spotlight come awards time, but he's taken the risk of slow pacing perhaps a bit too far. The long moments between dialogue, the thick stretches filled with little action at all: Personally, I love them; they impart the sense of desolation that hits my aesthetic sense just right. But that may be why much of the college-age audience was so restless, and why a third of them left during intermission. But maybe we can blame MTV for that. This Austin premiere, like a life of wandering by rail, is not for everyone. But its rewards aren't few, and it's worth the journey.