nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
August 9, 2008
Why are Americans so fascinated with serial killers? Is it because we recognize aspects of ourselves—twisted and distorted to monstrous dimensions—but human, nonetheless? Joyce Carol Oates, author of the novella Zombie, from which Bill Connington's one-man play is adapted, writes about the parallels between serial killing and creative art-making: "The serial killer's immersion in fantasy; his apparent helplessness in the face of compulsion...the ritualistic and totemic element of his grotesque 'art'...suggest a kinship, however distorted, with the artist." Maybe. Without a doubt, the fictional artist-monster at the center of Zombie comes vividly to human life thanks to the talents of an outstanding team of theatre artists.
Oates's text takes us inside the methodical, maniacal mind of Quentin P (clearly inspired by Jeffrey Dahmer), leading us along his thinking process as he recounts his attempts to create a living zombie out of the "dispensable" young black men to whom he is attracted. We come to understand that Quentin doesn't want to kill but to control. He's simply trying to get what he wants: a lover who will satisfy his every need. And if the candidates happen to die in the messy process, he angrily gives himself an "F" for failure and moves on to the next attempt. With Oates's vivid language and Connington's perfect articulation, Quentin's reasoning becomes frighteningly simple to understand.
Although I have not read the original, I believe Connington's adaptation is faithful to the language and tone (Oates was sitting in front of me, and seemed pleased with the piece). It's also grippingly dramatic. Connington is a riveting performer, and he's exceptionally well-supported by his artistic team. Director Thomas Caruso conducts the piece with exquisite tension which builds with a determined pace. Working with scenic designer Josh Zangen, the staging is simple and potent; with a table, a toy chess set, and a stuffed dummy, Caruso and Connington create startling, revealing theatrical images. Joel E. Silver provides effective lighting with subtle shifts that perfectly support the play's rhythms, and Deirdre Broderick's soundscape is appropriately spooky.
What ultimately holds our attention is Connington's performance. Speaking every syllable with razor sharp precision, as if to make sure we grasp his every word, he is cunning with his mood shifts, dangerously funny one moment and dead serious a millisecond later. His slow, often unaffected expression functions as a mask for his twisted, warped mental process. Connington holds his audience with the kind of control Quentin longs to have over his victims, and though he never asks us to like or sympathize with Quentin, he does demand that we understand him.
Which raises the question of what is our role in this morbid affair? The piece seems to cast its audience as scientific observers—and Quentin's awareness of being observed may be why it's so unsettling to watch. There are certainly some things about Quentin's story that some of us might, gulp, identify with. We hear how he was beat up as a kid at school, and about being humiliated by his father upon discovery of his male pornography stash. But why do most people survive such early traumas—some grow up to become healthy creative artists—while exceptions like Quentin go so horribly bad? Quentin—and Oates—aren't offering any easy explanations. Perhaps it's the inability to know why these horrible things happen that keeps us so fascinated with serial killers and why Zombie is such a satisfyingly uncomfortable experience.