Ghosts in the Cottonwoods
nytheatre.com review by Amber Gallery
November 14, 2010
Obie Award-winning playwright Adam Rapp's latest play, devoured by the repertory company The Amoralists, is a gut-wrenching, cringe-inducing, nightmarish view of dirt-poor middle America. Naturally, this type of thing is not for everyone—visceral work that explores the gritty, dark, and primitive places in a human's brain and blood and heart. And if this sounds just like your cup of tea, then Ghosts in the Cottonwoods is not to be missed.
The extremely feint-of-heart and squeamish may want to steer clear of Theatre 80, where Rapp is also directing. But anyone who may be on the fence about the above description/warning should definitely head over and experience this production, because, for the most part, it is just plain great theatre.
The story begins with a mother, Bean, who was obviously a teenage mom, and her younger son Pointer. They are awaiting the arrival of older son Jeff from prison. The father is dead and Bean has become a shut-in, only stepping just outside the shack she and Pointer live in when absolutely necessary. After an injured passerby and Pointer's girlfriend show up, Jeff makes his anticipated return and chaos ensues.
The company members of the Amoralists are, as always, in top risk-taking form, all turning out dedicated and intensely felt performances. Standouts are William Apps as Newt, the injured passerby and Mandy-Nicole Moore as Shirley, Pointer's girlfriend. Mention must also be made of the wonderful physical work of James Kautz as runaway prisoner Jeff.
The physical elements of the production contain as much work, heart, and detailed thought as the actors' performances. Alfred Schatz's set design is extraordinary, cleverly transforming a very large playing area to a claustrophobic cage where the events of the play unfold, coupled with Jenna Levine's imposing sculptures. Lights by Keith Parham are just the right amount of unnatural, heightening Rapp's heavily symbolic script. Rapp and engineer Eric Shimelonis use the sound wisely, with slow in-and-out fades of eerie music and nature noise.
Rapp's dialogue, always dense and intelligent, feels less appropriate coming out of the mouths of the brash, uneducated characters that the actors embody. In addition, parts of the script and staging choices felt clunky, particularly in the action surrounding Jeff. Too many things happen to allow us to maintain a clear picture of the madness that is ripping apart the family. Despite these few missteps, the play overall delivers, packs punch after punch, and is captivating from start to finish (including the awesomely appropriate curtain call).
The Amoralists and Adam Rapp are quite the explosive combination. Let's hope they take another journey together soon.