Ouroboros rising

Big Death and Little Death

› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Never mind the ides of March, here comes year four of the Iraq War. Believe it or not, this whole illegal invasion-and-occupation business brought to you by the generally scary US government — that consortium of oil companies, political marionettes, neoconquerors, military wonks, and other capitalist heavies operating behind the flimflam of democracy and terror — is about to celebrate another birthday. (In various offstage boardrooms, we hear the muffled sound of champagne corks not so discreetly popping.)

It's unclear how many people are still fooled by the flapdoodle spewing from the faces fronting for this enterprise. For most of us in the big Green Zone back home, questions about the Iraq War have moved decidedly into the cultural realm, where the conflict lingers and ferments like others before it in the atmosphere generated between the TV and the dinner table — or, more insidiously, in the mute wasteland of adolescent malaise, surrounded on all sides by a dysfunctional society in lofty denial of its serious penchant for destruction.

Although written in the aftermath of the Gulf War, that media-sanitized prequel to contemporary carnage, playwright Mickey Birnbaum's Big Death and Little Death squarely occupies the latter territory. But suburban death metal–laced teenage angst is more than the terrain of Birnbaum's sly and ferocious black comedy — now enjoying a feisty West Coast premiere by Crowded Fire — it's a beachhead from which the play gleefully lays waste to the universe as a whole.

Birnbaum's fully fledged two-act (originally intended as an opener for death metal bands) posits some distorted family values, amplified by the sublimated horrors of a world on fire. Its main characters are a brother and sister, Gary (Carter Chastain) and Kristi (Mandy Goldstone), two sympathetically screwed-up teenagers whose modest nuclear household (an evocative panorama of linoleum, Formica, and faded wallpaper in Chloe Short's deceptively spare set design) is vaguely overseen by their father, a troubled Desert Storm vet (Lawrence Radecker). Since returning from the Gulf, Dad likes to take pictures of road accidents (your quiet, volatile type, in other words, wonderfully fashioned by Radecker as an opaque yet sympathetic psychopath in desert fatigues). Completing the picture for a time is Mom, or Dad's unfaithful wife (Michele Levy), whose history of sexual indiscretion while her husband was off sauntering through hell comes tumbling out of her in a series of Tourette's-like confessions.

In the role of a highly inadequate support circle are Gary's friend Harley (Ben Freeman), an awkward adolescent with an ambivalent thing for his friend's sister; Gary's twisted guidance counselor, Miss Endor (Tonya Glanz), who invites him to a death metal concert before diving into a crank-fueled nihilist rant; and Gary's inappropriate Uncle Jerry (Michael Barr), a Navy sailor who becomes even more inappropriate as the oxygen leaves the stranded sub from which he makes a farewell call.

When a litter of pups is carted off by a classic suburban tweaker (Barr) in exchange for a gun and a bag of drugs, one of the pups (Mick Mize, in a dog suit) is left behind somewhere to haunt the house and mind of the posttraumatic paterfamilias.

Also from this author

  • Meta-boredom

    A play's 'playwright' can't keep his mind focused on the subject at hand in 'The Late Wedding'

  • Bearing it all

    Keith Hennessy offers a work-in-progress showing of solo 'Bear/Skin'


    Daring new works at Portland, Ore.'s Time-Based Art Festival