Ouroboros rising

Pub date February 28, 2007
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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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. This subplot is interspersed with scenes from a family car trip from hell and Kristi’s anorexic adolescent anguish as Gary ponders whether to go to city college or "destroy the universe." In the end, as the characters make love, war, art, and friends in no particular order, the second option looks increasingly enticing to our hero, if only to clear the way for something new.

Smartly staged by Sean Daniels (moonlighting from his position as associate artistic director at the California Shakespeare Theater), Big Death and Little Death speaks to this imploding universe loudly and affirmatively, forefingers and pinkies extended. In Birnbaum’s optimistic apocalypse, there’s a difference between the annihilation of the system and the creative destruction that envisions a new beginning on the horizon.

The umbilical link between big and little deaths brings to mind the Vietnam-era "little murders" in Jules Feiffer’s even more prescient black comedy of an American culture of self-destruction. One’s tempted to call Birnbaum’s play the Little Murders of our day.

But neither can really compete with the culture they so sharply critique nor prove as strange or fitting as the news of the dean of West Point ganging up with human rights activists, the FBI, and military in-terror-gators to chastise the creators of 24 for feeding US soldiers too many tantalizing torture techniques. Seems almost a chicken-and-egg problem at times, this relationship between big death in Iraq (and Afghanistan and beyond) and little death on the tube. It’s quite a food chain too, bringing to mind that serpent devouring its own tail. Come to think of it, Ouroboros would make an excellent name for a death metal band. *


Through March 4

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.

Traveling Jewish Theatre

470 Florida, SF

(415) 439-2456