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Off-Broadway Review

Ghosts in the Cottonwoods

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Ghosts in the Cottonwoods
Photo Source: Annie Parisse
You know those days when you're really looking forward to something and then absolutely everything goes wrong? That's what befalls mother and son Bean and Pointer Scully in "Ghosts in the Cottonwoods," the first collaboration between Adam Rapp and the Amoralists. A sterling example of the importance of context, the production makes little sense unless you know when the play was created and what the intent of its producers is. It's one of Rapp's early plays, which explains why he trowels on Sam Shepardesque characters and situations without binding them in a rigorous idea. The Amoralists use the play to strike a blow against sclerotic modes of presentation and received attitudes in the minds of audiences and critics. The result, depending on the degree to which one believes that context matters, is either hot air or a refreshing breeze. In this case, I fall squarely into the latter camp. I had a blast.

The plot is an avalanche of Shepardesque clichés. In the opening tableau, we find Bean sucking poison from leech welts scattered across 20-year-old Pointer's naked body while they await the arrival of Bean's other son, Jeff. A bounty hunter arrives, only to be shot by Pointer with a crossbow and strangled by Bean with an electrical cord. Then, just as Pointer prepares to chop off his head, Shirley Judyhouse, Pointer's pregnant girlfriend, appears carrying a pie that's been struck by lightning.

At that point, the floor of Bean's shack bursts open and Jeff, dressed in filthy prison garb, emerges. He can barely talk, the result of a slashed throat, but he manages to communicate that he's returned after six years of prison for killing his father to kill Bean. This is the one moment of traditional theater in the piece, the revelation of the secret, but it is far from the end of the play. Suddenly, a second filthy man emerges from the floor. "K-K-K-K-K!" he says, speaking to Jeff in the clicking cat-man language they've developed, and proceeds to rape Bean on the kitchen table before departing with Jeff and Judy. And even that's not the end.

All this is accomplished with no hint of winking; Rapp, who also directs, and the actors are dead serious about what they're doing. The performers inhabit the characters with creepy but innocent savagery, and the dexterity with which they spit out Rapp's faux-white-trash poetry and nonsense syllables is impressive. On the technical side, Alfred Schatz's set is a perfect playground for this rambunctious crew, and Jessica Pabst's costumes suit them like fur befits a cat.

Perhaps the funniest moment is the curtain call, when the characters face the audience in a stone-faced pose that's half "American Gothic," half "Addams Family." If not a bravo moment, it certainly rates a hearty "K-K-K-K-K!"



Presented by the Amoralists at Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Mark's Place, NYC. Nov. 11–Dec. 12. Mon., Thu.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (No performance Thu., Nov. 25.) (212) 388-0388 or www.theatre80.net.

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