Turtleneck: sex, violence, porn and red hot hilarity 25 September 2017.
by Drew Rowsome- Photos by Colleen Yates and Samantha Polzin
The hottest day of 2017 arrives a day after the first day of fall, and on a sweltering night we file into the already balmy Tree of Life Theatre, a small room in the basement of a warehouse. The temperature is about to rise, not just because of body heat but because Turtleneck is scorching red hot provocation and hilarity.
We have been lured by the promise of a revival of a play by Brandon Crone, who has a blistering hot track record with Contempt, Nature of the Beast, Maypole Rose and Donors. Turtleneck begins with masturbation before escalating into a classic French farce maelstrom of sex and violence. Studded with outrageous one-liners, Turtleneck explores where desire intersects with porn, obsession, addiction and power. There are a few absurdist flourishes - and questionable plot points - that don't become clear until an explicit reference to Sartre's No Exit that reframes the boiling plot as a treatise of the prison of our desires.
Tree of Life Theatre is tiny and the close proximity to the action ups the ante nicely. And it gives the cast no room for false notes. Director Brandon Nicoletti keeps everything moving quickly, with coherence, and manages to paper over the few slips where the sex and violence become obviously simulated. And the sheen of sweat on the actors emphasizes their commitment to characters who have to go from zany to dangerous within a sentence or a cluster of f-bombs. No-one in the audience will ever again hear the phrase "It's my birthday" without having to choke down appalled laughter.
Annie Tuma (Pippi: The Strongest Girl in the World) shines a feisty repressed crusader with a grudge, finding a counterpoint in her pet project, Karen Scobie, whose sunny sullenness hides a secret sexual explosiveness. Sean Jacklin gets lots of laughs with a character always in danger of becoming a cartoon and with dubious motivation. As the voice of reason and chivalry, Bryce Fletch endures the worst of the violence and the character's unease and milquetoast bravery is comical but also endearing. And he milks laughs out of a simple gag not once, not twice, but four times: each funnier.
No-one in Turtleneck is a villain and no-one is even vaguely virtuous. That duplicity and deviousness, and the entire dilemma of porn as plague or placebo, is embodied in Steven Vlahos (Sister Act) as Roy. He alternates seemingly sincere speeches with graphic threats, he could be a saviour, he is more likely a scoundrel. He even sells a short stand-up routine filled with excruciatingly bad jokes. He is the bad boy who, like porn, is likely dangerous but irresistibly desirable. And there is Turtleneck in microcosm: these people are vile, hilarious, conflicted and they are us. It is a bleak worldview related with comic virtuosity. I doubt that even a turbo-charged air conditioner would have cooled the heat.