The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
February 8, 2008
The slugs in the Vineyard Theatre's The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, or The Friends of Dr. Rushower, are not of the gastropod mollusk variety. As described by their chief manufacturer, Dr. Rushower, they are small, four-ounce pieces of lead—mined by robots in the Criterion Mountains—inserted into otherwise hollow electrical devices that give "the impression of heft and worth":
And thus telephones are prevented from blowing off their desks,
And blenders can resist the pushing of their buttons.
We lift these lead weights on a daily basis
Yet still remain oblivious
Oblivious to their existence.
The bearers of these slugs are the poorly paid stevedores who live on Kayrol Island, where one-sixth of the world's consumer goods are produced. These unfortunate workers subsist on diets of processed turkey and something called "Kayrol Cola," a concoction one character describes as "dirty water and codeine." These workers transport the slugs a mere twenty feet from their point of arrival to the point of their departure. They live in squalid two-story buildings overlooking the sea. They are paid in date-nut leaves. They live without electricity. "They remain in the dark," Dr. Rushower explains.
The Slug Bearers begins with a wrong number, dialed by one of these stevedores, Samson, to Dr. Rushower's daughter GinGin, a twentysomething English Lit grad student who spends her days in school and some of her evenings entertaining her father's clients. She describes her life in terms of its monotony, but when Samson continues to call—he has kept her number in his speed dial—the subsequent conversations awaken her otherwise dormant sensuality. This sensuality is given focus when the plight of the workers and squalor of Kayrol Island are brought to her attention. With the help of a would-be suitor named Immanuel Lubang, brought into her life via a spoonful of strawberry ice-cream, she hopes to bring salvation to the island's inhabitants.
Where salvation lies is the proverbial rub that this charming and quietly challenging production explores. To Immanuel, it lies in bringing the poetry of technology—or more specifically, instruction manuals—to the natives. "In five years time all of these appliances will be gone... But the literature included in the package will survive..."
To Dr. Rushower, the salvation of the island lies in the opportunity it provides his daughter to pursue happiness. He gladly sends her there with the Immanuel because he believes love might give her life a richness equal to his own. Rushower is expertly portrayed by Peter Friedman, who builds the most complex character in the show: his familiarity deceives and his motives simply surprise, creating a person whose actions are delightful to witness with consequences frightening to consider.
To GinGin, the island provides salvation from the tedium of her life and the absence of romantic love. But when salvation finally arrives in the second act, after she unexpectedly runs into Samson on the island, it is a credit to Ben Katchor's libretto that her release from the former has very little to do with the latter. I'm not giving anything away by saying she is transformed; but the nature of her change comes from an unexpected source and Jody Flader's handling of the material is subtle and rewarding.
The production's design team helps the flawless cast immeasurably. Russell H. Champa's lighting design and Jim Findlay and Jeff Suggs's set design work perfectly to make the most of Katchor's drawings, which are projected onto the screens and scrims that are manipulated to create the various production's numerous locations. The whimsical images they display and the spaces they create are easily identifiable, a joy to look at, and give the actors the room and resources to play. Director Bob McGrath makes the most of these elements in Immanuel's initial elevator ride to Dr. Rushower's penthouse—but there are several astonishing moments throughout.
The actors are also helped by a five-man band who move seamlessly through a variety of musical styles. Yet Mark Mulcahy's score seems structured to keep a thread of musical familiarity that supports the show's singular vision.
This singular vision is the prime reason to see The Slug Bearers. Everyone involved seems to be working at such a high level of craft, curiosity, and enthusiasm. The confidence of its staging allows it to present itself on its own terms. It lays down its plot and allows the audience the room to either take it at face value or dig deeper to explore its themes. It gives its characters an arena to play out their strengths and weaknesses and creates a unique and believable world that shines a light on our own.