Theatre @ Boston Court
The world premiere of Mickey Birnbaum’s bleakly captivating Bleed Rail, which offers a scary but accurately skewed view of the death of the American dream, is guaranteed to bring another set of honors to the already award-heavy Theatre @ Boston Court by year’s end. If there’s one defining thing to be said about this groundbreaking theatrical complex as it continues to careen cheekily into its fourth season, it’s that its choices are continuously fearless, its “deciders” fiercely determined to bring challenging new work to our community without once settling for something safe.
In the arresting world premiere of Birnbaum’s haunted modern-day anti-epic, a young man (Dennis Flanagan) lives a nightmarish dead-end existence in a mid-western heartland town dominated by heavy industry and strip malls, well described by one of his trapped characters as the “asshole of the world.” Although the program also tells us it’s a place with “plenty of nothing to do,” Ryan consumes most of his time desperately trying to hang onto his obviously non-unionized job working the line at the local slaughterhouse with his bizarrely cryptic friend Justin (Josh Clark), racking up the hours and overtime eviscerating dead—and often not yet dead—cattle, which hang twitching from large horrific hooks on the Bleed Rail conveyor belt looming above them.
As some of the less fortunate terrorized cows fight for their lives, so do Ryan and Justin, as one small breakdown in this repetitive assembly line of death could cost them their livelihood as the foremen watch nearby. Although the carcasses themselves are gratefully though graphically pantomimed for the audience, massive amounts of their spilled blood splatters everywhere (which makes me wonder if the Boston Court got a deal by purchasing stage blood by the gallon) as the desensitized workers’ hideously menacing butcher knives tear into the often still convulsing tissue under Jeremy Pivnik’s harsh lighting and accompanied by John Zalewski’s bone-chilling sound design of ripping flesh and failing heartbeats.
It isn’t much better for Ryan’s roommate and childhood best friend Keith (Cyrus Alexander), who mans the counter at a patriotic-themed heartland fastfood joint where a tinny God Bless America is continuously piped into the restaurant. As Keith drones repetitively over his microphone to the kitchen for orders of Liberty Burgers and Prairie Fries, which eerily echo Ryan’s existence in the slaughterhouse as they descend in to-go bags from above traveling along a high industrial chute, Keith hands these happy meals to his customers with a blandly insincere “Have a free day,” dreaming all the while of becoming a porn director (“I’m good at fucking,” he relates with pride and great sincerity).
Watching the dastardly and darkly humorous metaphor of Birnbaum’s amazing Bleed Rail would be hard to describe as a fun night out, but nonetheless, it’s one of the best productions offered in Los Angeles so far this year. Director Jessica Kubzansky is at the top of her well-appreciated game here and her actors simply could not be better. Flanagan, Alexander and Clark are stunning as the three workers whose life has nowhere to go, their sorrowfully unfulfilled lives made even more apparent by the work of Lily Holleman as Jewel, a lost and homeless waif who enters their lives when she agrees to show her giggie to Keith in return for a Liberty Burger she can’t pay for, staying on to turn the guys’ home life—such as it is—upside-down.
Hugo Armstrong is also horrendously disturbing as Jim the Hanger, a quirky, ominous fellow slaughterhouse employee who falls somewhere between Leatherface and Thor Johnson in Plan Nine from Outer Space. At the end of the season, this uniformly beguiling cast could easily win every Ensemble Cast honor our award-happy city has to offer to actors in place of a livable wage.
Blood Rail is an all but perfect production with, for me, only two small visual disappointments. Susan Gratch’s splendidly inventive, blood-splattered industrial set design is topped by a (presumably) authentic bleed rail towering ominously above the action on the versatile Boston Court stage, a fascinating network of cables, exposed gears and, of course, that bad dream-inducing series of strategically placed cattle hooks. Sadly, however, it doesn’t ever move. Following the rail visually before the show and watching the actors throughout the piece exit from scenes in a slow, circular zombiewalk around the stage while staring up at the gore-dripping hooks, I was sure we were in for a typically arresting Boston Court treat by the end, but the rail remained stationary, never grinding loudly into action as I’d expected.
Also, in a late scene where Keith narrates to Jewel and Justin the documentary footage he shot of Ryan’s rather predictable death after he enlists in the Army and goes off to carve up even more helpless and innocent victims in Iraq in the name of another kind of satiation, I was surprised the imaginative Kubzansky missed showing the audience his broken body swinging from those creepy but surprisingly underused hooks that so symbolically govern the character’s limited choices in life.
I wonder how many people attending the indelible Bleed Rail will suffer a couple of sleepless nights thinking about the ever-encroaching Jerry Springeresque state of American life in a country constantly devolving into a moral quagmire—and left to get worse at the hands of our crooked, greedy political system and the out of control cowboy madman leading the pack of vultures stripping the world of all honor and ethics in the quest for dominance.
If nothing else is accomplished here, I’ll just bet more than a handful of patrons will attempt a vegetarian diet after seeing Bleed Rail, at least one small step toward a better and fairer world. Personally, I’ll never quite look at a hamburger the same way again.
Bleed Rail plays through June 17 at the Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Av., Pasadena; for tickets, call 626.683.6883.