Kavanagh is tired.
He’s tired of all the many years he has provided quality finger smashing. Like so many of us (I think), Kavanagh knows that feeling of pure bliss, the unmitigated joy one gets when the hammer lands squarely on the fingers, one by one, bones being crushed and made into a fine powder underneath a layer of black, blue and bloody skin. After countless hours of the most magical digit smashing known to man, he is just finding that it’s just not worth it anymore.
As the late, great BB King might say, “The thrill is gone.”
What would make the man who found such glee in a good smack to the fingers want to throw it all away? Well, for some reason, Kavanagh is starting to see the bigger picture. And the picture has a lot more to do with what is good than what is evil.
The dark comedy “Don’t be Evil,” produced by the fledgling Department of Badassery, is slick in its execution and asks all the right questions. Namely, how can we progress as a nation if we are unwilling to acknowledge our deficiencies?
The story revolves around the character of Webster, (a visceral turn by Justin Liszanckie). Webster is the epitome of the new dot-com money, rockin’ a grey Stanford tee that doubles as a business suit in the young world of high stakes search engine startups. When we first meet Webster, he is hooded and shackled, and has clearly gotten on someone’s bad side.
Well, it doesn’t take long for the whoopin’ to start. Smacks on the head. Head to the table. You know, your basic torturous proceedings. Kavanagh (strongly presenced Eric Reid) gets in licks of the physical variety, but Hayes (delightfully deadpan Daria “Shani” Johnson) comes at Webster more from the psychological side, a woman with plenty of presence, a company line gal through and through.
Director Gabriel Montoya has a keen sense of the importance of pace in each scene. Playing in the intimate PianoFight performance space in San Francisco gives Montoya a plethora of options to create the minutiae that exists in this barren world, where the only connection to the outside comes with the repetitive sound of a heavy, metal door opening and closing with fluid rapidity. In this world, sunlight is an abstract concept that existed in Webster’s past.
The play itself, written by Bennett Fisher, is a mix of a few styles, with plenty of dark humor, coupled with the absurd-like stylings of Ionesco or Beckett. Conversations in this world have a detached coldness to them, a group desensitized by the brutality of their racket. And while there were moments that might have lost a bit of their compelling nature, the play’s strength is its immediacy, a call that forces us to acknowledge what may be hard to acknowledge – that we as a country might have a few, shall I say, character flaws.
The cast of the show is very tight. Reid and rope-measurer extraordinaire Murdock (A marvelous Steven Cloyes) are especially effective and comfortable in their roles. While not every discovery might have been made coming from the listening of Johnson, she is certainly a talent on the rise, an actor who will continue to find more and more truth in her portrayal the longer she lives with this character.
A personal favorite character is the aforementioned Murdock. He is so numb to his business; his measuring a rope for a hanging is as common as adding milk to his coffee. He is a pragmatic sort, looking for the gallows to offer the least amount of stress possible. Since Webster is still really not of this world, his blood pressure skyrockets in hearing this information. Cloyes certainly goes a long way in nailing the man’s tone and temperature.
Probably the most effective aspect of Liszanckie’s portrayal is the discomfort he exudes. Whether it’s torture of the physical and mental variety, Liszanckie never allows you to be completely comfortable. The hood over his head when the audience walks in is a stark reminder to the ugliness of Abu Ghraib, or even further back historically, the slavery of the Trojan women dramatized by Euripides. The images make for scintillating tableaus.
The world of the play is created nicely by the simple, yet effective lights designed by the show’s producer Robin Fontaine, and a sharp set designed collectively by the company. It has filing cabinets and files for days, yet the set certainly has a few ingenious tricks up its sleeve. A nifty sound design, with an endless amount of sound cues, is brought forth by Montoya.
The play serves as a bit of a morality play mixed in with dark humor. Unless we can acknowledge our own failings as a nation, we can never correct or heal those failings. It’s a little like sitting in a dark room with no windows. Once we allow for the healing to begin, we just may see the beautiful sunlight, which is ready to pierce our windows, and our hearts.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
The Department of Badassery presents “Don’t Be Evil”
Written by Bennett Fisher
Directed by Gabriel Montoya
The Word: Sharp critique of our nation, but effective in offering great introspection for its characters.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Through Oct. 3rd
Piano Fight Theatre
144 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
Tickets are $28
For tickets, visit www.pianofight.com