In Native Speech, On the Verge and In perpetuity Throughout the Universe, Eric Overmyer manifested a extraordinary command over the tools of language: sound, syntax and image. None exhibited much control over, or interest in, the more mundane devices of the playwright’s art. In Dark Rapture, which premiered at Seattle’s Empty Space Theater in May, Overmyer’s verbal dexterity is acute as ever, but this time it’s harnessed to a plot delivered by characters who seem driven by purposes of their own. It’s by far Overmyer’s most satisfying play.
Dark Rapture may not, however, earn its author the critical praise it deserves it certainly didn’t in Seattle because it adheres so strictly to the rules of a genre. In the written arts, in film, in dance, in pop music, a creative artist’s submission to such rules earns no disrespect. In theatre, it seems we honor work created within rigid conventions only if the conventions are someone else’s” kabuki or kathakali, wayang or noh.Order now
Escape from the ordinary
Dark Rapture is “noir,” the genre which crystallized in the 1940s novels and screenplays of Raymond Chandler and has intermittently borne fruit ever since in the hands of artists as various as Richard Condon and Wim Wenders. Good noir is rare on stage–Overmyer’s own early In a Pig’s Valise is congested, prankish hommage, dead on arrival. But his Dark Rapture is the most succesful stage essay in the form since Len Jenkins’s marvelous, poetic Five of Us.
Like many noir fictions, Dark Rapture is about escape: from the self, from the sane, from the ordinary. This time the escape hatch is offered by a fire that leaves the Berkeley Hills home of Ray and Julia Gaines a pile of smoldering rubble with a charred and unrecognizable corpse beneath it. Whose corpse is it: Ray’s, or a looter’s? Just where was Julia when the house burned down? And what happened to the brown-paper parcel Julia says she left in Ray’s custody? Did it go up in flames, too, with or without him? Any number of sinister people want to know.
In classic noir manner, the story advances tableau by moody tableau from Baja bedroom to Key West bar deck to Tampas kitchenette, each offering its sharply etched character cameo, its fragment on information, its new complication, straight to a conclusion redolent with irony.
Patsies and sleazeballs
The performances were utterly attuned to the material. As a lifelong schlepper grabbing that one big chance, Peter Silbert made Ray a loser worth rooting for. As the from’s obligatory good bad girl, bad good girl, and bad girl, Sally Smythe, Jessica Marlowe and Katie Forgette gave their archetypical roles individual flair. Particularly notable among those playing assorted gunsels, patsies, sleazeballs, wise-asses and loons were Rex McDowell as a mad Armenian hit-man, Robert Wright and David Pichette (poisonous lizard and rabid pekinese, respective) as businessman trafficking in non-standard merchandise, and David Mong as the mysterious Babcock, Ray’s sunnily implacable doom.
The design was equally supportive. Peggy McDonald’s supple arrangements of screens and Paul Chi-ming Louey’s matte costumes under Michael Wellborn’s chiaroscuro lighting heightened Overmyer’s torrid imagery through contrast. David Pascal’s sound design holocaust and hurricane and all shadings between put a final polish on Empty Space artistic director Kurt Beattie’s perfectly paced staging. Few productions of new plays especially ones mounted on a minuscule budget by an artist heretofore best known as an actor-playwright are as assured as this one.
Dark Rapture was commissioned and staged as part of the Empty Space “ensemble project” put together by Beattie to test a long-held conviction that authoritarian structures are ill-designed to produce first-rate theatre; that “true extended collaboration is a lot more likely to produce a cultural artifact that has some lasting value for the society that produced it” than any one-shot wiring together of egos, however brilliant individually. After only four months of concentrated work and just two productions, Beattie’s theory already seems amply confirmed in practice.