Saturday, January 14, 2012

Americano by John Markland

By Joe Straw

I’ve always been fascinated - walking into a theatre - the entrance.  It’s the whole experience – the unexpected sensory sensation – the suspense.   My first movie – Deutschland – 1960.  My first chair – red.  Walking to the seat was almost like walking into a pew - a religious experience. 

Movie theatres had red curtains back then.  The curtains were closed when the trailer started – when opened the image became clear - closed again – vaporous draperies. But when the curtains finally opened to reveal the movie on this afternoon they opened to a terrifying black and white clarity of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Everyone remembers the moment – in the bathroom.  For me it was the shadowy figure standing – indefinitely - beside the open door. That caliginous figure seemed suspended in a deferred moment of indecision.  It was a moment that terrified this 5 year-old.*

In Americano John Markland has created a frightening coffee shop monster.  He is a beastly character that seductively preys on the mentally frail and subjects them to the most horrific scenes imaginable. Only when they are at their weakest moment.

And we, as audience members and coffee shop patrons, are left as godlike uninvolved omnipotent observers who stand by helplessly while this is going on, plugged into our iPod nanos, having our cup of non-decaf soy mocha cappuccino extra whip unaware of the beastly things going on in the bathroom.  

But then again, he thinks he’s a saint. 

Americano by John Markland at The Moth Theatre literally grabs you by the throat and squeezes the reality back into your being.  This play has you on the edge of your seats, wincing in fear and caring about the characters.  It sets fire to emotions so deep one is exhilarated by the seduction, terrified by the suspense, and horrified by the action.   

The characters in Americano fall together like a freak coffee shop accident. One cannot help but to examine the circumstances of the accident and explore the outcome.  

But, when the events in the bathroom run out of control there is no time to re-act, cringing was the first order of business, hands in front of my neck and covering my mouth.  The restricted images behind the partial wall on stage are so brutal and so vicious one forgets this is a play. 

Americano is set in a coffee shop in Los Angeles. Kate (Amanda Brooks) is a bonny transplant from England.  She is an unemployed graphic artist and is not having a good day.  Tuned in with earphones and thinking about her recent past she sits alone waiting to end a five-year relationship.  

Nate (Patrick Scott Lewis) enters, hair disheveled, pink shirt, black tie, carrying a bag, and kisses her as though nothing is wrong but their lips never quite seem to connect. He is unaware this is the end of a rocky road.  His physical aggressive over-the-top pawing gives new meaning to the term “white on rice”.  Be that as it may, their relationship is strangling Kate and she needs to discover a way out.

But this can’t be, Nate has done much to make the relationship work.  His carefree days are over now and he has done the manly thing and gotten a job.  He is driven to support both of them and wants Kate to marry him. By first glance he is the better half of this couple.  He is the one who commands respect and admiration.

But there’s something wrong.  Kate says he’s lost his focus.  He is not the carefree thinker Kate once knew. 

Nate has worked two months to buy her a ring and she, in turn, threw it off the pier and into the ocean.  

Has she gone mad?

“What’s wrong?” – Nate
“I am and so are you!” – Kate

Nate believes they can work it out through their therapist but Kate is not having any of this.

“I need you!” – Nate
“I need me!” – Kate

Kate tells Nate that he is moving in a good direction for him but not for her.  She wants to end it here, and now, in the coffee shop, in front of her maker, and anyone else within earshot. And of course she gets her wish when Nate leaves and the poet/strangler Stephen (John Markland) steps into her realm. 

Stephen, with a northeastern accent, is an indefinable character hidden behind a thick beard. He has a strong back and massages his thick fingers continuously. His unisexual licentiousness makes no distinction between man and woman when it comes to finding a prey and getting the job done.      

It is in his softness that Kate succumbs to Stephen’s charm and, like it or not, Stephen is not leaving her table.

“I’m a poet strangler.”Stephen

It is in the details that Stephen slowly seduces her, tells her all about the strangling, how it will happen, and asks her to follow him into the bathroom. 

He waits in the bathroom, stretching his fingers, using them to comb back the thick hair on his head.  He waits and plans for the exact moment when she walks through the door.  

Most women would have run from the coffee shop. Instead, after hesitating, Kate knocks.  She enters and gingerly steps into the bathroom.

Without emotion Stephen lifts his cold hands, places them softly around her neck, and squeezes the life from her body.  A fight ensues but she is no match and with a mighty struggle for life, her life force is retired, and she is left for dead, on the floor, in a dirty, dingy, bathroom.

(Okay, do not read on if this has, in any way, peaked your interest and you must grab a ticket or two.)

Moments later she coughs air into her oxygen deprived body.  Stephen is gone, and she walks out of the bathroom and into the streets leaving her bag in Americano.

Okay, so, Stephen doesn’t kill his victims.  He strangles them to near death. Still, the deed was vicious and brutal.

The following morning Kate comes back for her bag and sits down to have a cup of tea.  She is completely changed in manner and radiant.  She is slightly caught off guard when her therapist, Dr. Leif (Wendy Haines), comes in to speak with her about her “life” and breakup with Nate.

But Dr. Leif has noticed a dramatic difference in Kate’s demeanor. She has changed for the better and wonders if she’s missing out on something.  Her life is monotonous, so much so that she flips the small paper tag at the end of a teabag string over and over again, for fun. 

“Life is mostly predictable until, it’s not.” – Dr. Leif  

Kate tells her of a new friend who is a masseur, of sorts, and right away Dr. Leif wants his card. 

Dr. Leif, with the nice jangly purse and latest gadgets, has everything a mundane life could ask for but also has dreams of putting some unpredictability back into her life.  It is a dangerous game she pursues when she meets up with Stephen.

Americano is something very different and worth every minute of your time. This is just a fantastic cast who will go to extremes to play the right moment. Despite the terrifying parts, there are extremely funny moments as well.

John Markland as Stephen (the strangler) broods with the best of them.  As the character he finds his prey, calms them, and takes them where they might not want to go.  In his own minds he thinks he’s doing the victims a service.  There is a fee involved yet he never takes the money.  He tows the line between saint and sinner without believing there is a distinction.  In the bathroom, his manic eyes convey exhilaration so intense that one can only imagine what is going on.  This was a brutally fine performance.

Amanda Brooks as Kate is as charming as a lover could be.  She gently throws Nate out of her life because she knows this kind of man, too well.  She lives a life of unique experiences, the grander the better before she moves on to other dangerous grounds.  She loves and lives the moment and is ready to accept anything or anyone that comes her way.  This is a terrific performance by a wonderful actor.

Wendy Haines as Dr. Lief is a remarkable actress.  It just the perfect little things she does that makes her life on stage so genuine, so alive. Although she is only one character, she has many roles, doctor, friend, and needy victim.  She is willing to go beyond her extreme fear to experience - putting her neck into the hands of someone who can end her life, role.  She is extremely funny and incredibly talented.

Patrick Scott Lewis as Nate gives us a lot of information about his character only in bit and pieces until he is ready to explode. It is a character study of someone who at first glance is a decent human being but at second glance a character you would not want to be in the same room. It is an extremely nuanced and troubling performance of an individual who is still trying to figure what he is all about.  In the end the fear takes control and he gets in way over his head.  Lewis is terrific in this role. 

Americano does have a barista working behind the counter.   This night, it was Pamela Guest and she was a delightful observer of the things going around her in her coffee shop and at times feels obligated to jump into the fray.

John Markland, the writer, has cleverly written a play that throws together all the elements of what fantastic theatre should be. He is an important playwright that encourages the audience to be emotionally involved.  This is a solid piece of work by an amazing cast that demands to be seen.  Markland gives us just one more reason to go down, grab a cup, and interact.

I’ve always been fascinated by acting by the Moth Theatre company.  It is genuine and organic and it says a lot about the director, John Markland, who guides the actors in remarkable moments that flow and crest.  Markland takes us on a journey through some really uncomfortable moments and squeezes the life force back into your being.  The ending is very ambiguous and could be spruced up to give us a definitive resolution but you leave believing what you want to believe and move on.

Justin Huen did an incredible job on the set.

An interesting little tidbit about Americano by John Markland at the quaint 21-seat Moth Theatre is that audience members can sit in the working coffee shop along side the actors and view the performance.  My partner and I thought the first row worked well enough for us so we did not partake in this Tamara like experience.

Run to see this production, take a deep breath, hold on, and feel the excitement.  

And take someone who is lonely and doesn't get out much. 

*(Yes, my mother took me to see Psycho when I was 5 years old!) 

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