By JOHN DeMERS
Whatever the precise relationship between the two, August Strindberg’s Debt Collectors (adapted by the principals of Houston’s new Stark Naked Theatre Company) plays like Othello on some really bad drugs.
Whereas Shakespeare’s tragedy gives us one villain, Iago, whose bitterness and jealousy drive him to lead the Moor to slaughter the one person he loves, Desdemona, the triangle in Debt Collectors gets a lot more complicated. And, in recasting the show from a no-doubt brooding Danish island in the 1880s to a sunny Mexican island in our own day, Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin also recast the title – from Creditors to Debt Collectors. This script doesn’t merely focus on the debts we who love owe each other but on the ways we might keep coming back to get what we’re owed.
It’s safe to say we usually don’t. In love, which in Strindberg’s eyes seems to be the search for sex, most people do “move on” in one way or another. Or sometimes we do the same damn things, just with different people. But what, this play asks… what if the debt owed us by someone felt so immense that we tracked them down in their new relationship, saw to our horrified delight that many of the same powers were at work, and set out (yes, a bit like Iago) to make all things different? What if, indeed.
Stark Naked Theatre, on its first outing after springing from an earlier independent company called Brave Dog Theatre, seems entirely up to these dark doings. For one thing, Lehl and Tobin are known to be play-driven actors. Lehl heard about a production of Strindberg’s Creditors (directed by Alan Rickman, no less) that did well in London and New York, decided it was totally contemporary but needed a bit of updating, then wrote the first draft himself. Tobin went over the script line by line, with an eye toward clarity of intent – and, surely, an actor’s instinct for what could feel right and true and life-or-death onstage. The result, performed in the intimate Obsidian Arts Space in the Heights, primarily by the two and Alley veteran David Rainey, is all these things and a few more.
Debt Collectors plunges us, without Shakespearean prelude or exposition, into a bizarrely intense conversation between two men at a beach resort. The one named Andrew (played by Lehl) is a successful artist who’s plagued by various nervous disorders that have reduced him to getting around on crutches, and the other named Justin (Rainey) seems strangely aware of Andrew’s real problem, despite the fact they’ve just met casually and seem mostly hanging out for the cervezas. Each revelation through the play’s 90 minutes with no intermission packs a punch, so it would be wrong to give any away. Yet we in the audience come to suspect that Andrew’s emotional and physical problems stem from his soon-to-arrive wife Thea (he, logically, translates her name as his “Goddess), who can’t wait to reunite with her “Little Man.”
Sexual jealousy flows like bad plumbing all over the set of Debt Collectors. At one point, Justin even jokingly calls it the “green-eyed monster,” which of course points us back to Othello. Yet if Iago’s own wounds don’t make us even begin to forgive him, Justin’s do cry out for at least consideration. Thus, instead of a man and woman under attack from a single monster, we face something closer to an agonized and agonizing triangle. Again, not so much a love triangle as a sex triangle, with sex being the force of nature that gives people maturity, lets them find themselves and a kind of personal freedom, and eventually builds up that uneven balance of trade that this shadowy bit of Strindberg-once-removed is all about.
Lehl, Tobin and Rainey are pros, in absolute control of the tangled and fast-changing emotions involved in telling (more like revealing, actually) the secrets in this story. Lehl is particularly great at becoming Thea’s “Little Man” before our eyes, whether he’s reaching for his inhaler, shaking to climb up onto his crutches (no small metaphor there) or speaking in a higher and ever-more halting voice. Rainey brings strength and masculinity to Justin, and, while we figure Strindberg wasn’t interested in his more-macho-than-thou man being played as a black guy looming over a wimpy white guy, the effect is not lost upon us. Besides, as many works have been honest enough to make clear, all men know what it’s like to be in awe of a larger, more confident, more powerful male who takes what he wants, who seems both our single hero and our single greatest fear.
Tobin takes on the ambiguous role of Thea with all jets firing, at times seeming exactly the self-centered bitch who moves through time ruining men. But as with Justin, Tobin forces us repeatedly to question our own rush to judgment. Is it all her fault? Surely not. Or is she only giving men what they, in some ways, really want – even if it destroys them? It’s hard to watch Debt Collectors without thinking of our own relationships, however boring and innocuous they seem by comparison. And it’s impossible to watch Stark Naked make its debut without owing them something. Let’s hope they don’t show up on our doorstep someday to collect.
Stark Naked Theatre Company presents “Debt Collectors” at Obsidian Art Space, May 12-29. www.starknakedtheatre.com.
Photos by Gabriella Nissen. (top) Tobin and Lehl; (middle) Lehl and Rainey.