The Midwestern Theater Troupe hails its newest production as "a post-apocalyptic cowboy yarn." As anachronistic as such a setting may sound, the post-apoc Western has actually carved out its own generic niche, from Sam Shepard's "The Tooth of Crime" to Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" series. At the Nightingale Theater, John Cruncleton's own addition to that genre, "Down in the Ol' Hole," explores both post-apocalyptic future and apocalyptic past by conflating the mythic traditions of Greek theater and the Christian Bible.
This is Cruncleton's ninth play, written in 2005 and revised since that time.
The story begins with several men banding together after an unnamed virus has ended civilization as we know it. They have adopted the cowboy lifestyle and don't herd cattle, however, but pigs. They spend their days protecting and nurturing the herd, fending off the zombie-like "pukes," and maintaining (more or less) civil relations with the surrounding tribes and militias.
One day, Bob, the boss, confesses to his crew that a vision 19 years ago heralded an angelic visitation. Tensions surrounding this prophecy lead to tensions in the camp, and force the men--and Bob's wife and daughter--to choose sides before the apocalyptic day.
Before the play begins, scratchy blues and bluegrass tunes compliment the rustic set, which is dominated by earthy brown tree trunks and a low-seated dark green chair. Long rectangles unify the set's design, reminding one of tombstones, or of the grave itself. The hole as a burial site is one of many interpretations of the production's title.
Due to the predominance of such dark, heavy hues onstage, costume designer Sara Neely Cruncleton uses bright colors to differentiate the characters from one another. Karl the cook (Justin McKean) has blood on his butcher's apron. Dog (Andy Axwell), a clownish figure, gets more color than the others in his solid red pair of long johns. Yella (James Wilson), the fool, has his yellow handkerchief around his neck, foreshadowing his fate.
Fate and prophecy play key roles in the production. Unlike the inscrutible yet reliable divination we receive from Greek theater, prophecies in "Down in the Ol' Hole" come from unlikely sources and conflict with one another. Bob (Derek Adams), a nonbeliever, confesses to the angelic vision which led him to dig a well for his lover; yet Dunner (Dale Sams), a sly opportunist, reports that his tribe has seen evil rising up from a hole in the ground. Both characters are equally unsympathetic and both prophecies are equally unreliable, creating dramatic tension regarding this "ol' hole."
Cruncleton inserted many allusions into the text. Some of these serve to reinforce and deepen its thematic elements. Others seem more superficially playful, especially the jumbled-up tall tales which Karl tells at dinnertime. Because these allusions vary in their depth and scope, Cruncleton avoids wearing out their welcome, but a few of them threaten to distract and confuse the viewer. Bob's soliloquy to his solitary bullet, presumably a nod to the dagger monologue from Macbeth, jars with the production's style.
Characters had talked to themselves onstage previously, but not in such a calculated and flowery manner.
Then again, "high-falutin'" speech has its place in the text, too. Dinah (Angela Adams) and Elly (S. Cruncleton) rest a moment in the forest when Elly's menstrual cramps flare up. The cramps bring them to the subject of childbirth, then to humankind's place in nature. It's one of the play's most effective moments; it's honest, unaffected and touching. Natural forest sounds and a woodwind underscore the scene (though such sound cues tend to become over-scores, and could be toned down a bit). It's a quiet, intimate moment in the midst of what can be a confusing and alienating text, and the subsequent interruption by the eerie hooded "pukes" ratchets up the tension. Unfortunately, the odd stage business--struggling with the rifle, blanket and traps--needs some tightening up.
The crux of the play is the angel's prophesied return: what will happen after the third day's (and the third act's) arrival? As the allusions and hints mount, it becomes the audience's duty to piece together the family's history, and to understand what happened on that fateful day 19 years ago.
That revelation's dramatic success hinges upon precise timing, the assemblage of allusions and hints at the very peak of the play's climax. If the production feeds us the hints too forcefully, we figure it out too soon and see the surprise coming. If it's too cryptic, we figure it out three hours later, by which time the dramatic momentum has been completely lost. It's a risky gambit, and will probably result in a lot of folks scratching their heads as they leave the theater.
The hallucination sequence also risks confusing the audience. The pigs' stylized speech is difficult to hear, let alone follow. The ritualized exit of each drugged person onstage, one by one, drags. And the business with that doll prop, here and elsewhere, is awkward rather than disturbing or moving. Its appearance at the end is especially alienating.
However, given the choice between a play that confuses and a play that condescends, I choose the former every time. A challenging text engages the audience. Even though I felt lost at times during "Down in the Ol' Hole," I also felt like a co-conspirator, negotiating, side by side with the characters, the twisty passages which Bob's prophecy has carved out.
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