Oakland Tribune, March 23, 1999
Possum Play is about three creepy degrees removed from reality. A
new play by Benjie Aerenson, Possum is about the kind of insanity
that is a little too familiar, hits a little too close to home.
Berkeley's Shotgun Players are mounting
the West Coast premiere of Aerenson's play at the South Berkeley Community
Church and giving it a lean, sturdy production.
Though the play unravels in its second act, the first is a thrilling example
of script, acting and direction coming together to create a tone of irresistible
Aerenson, a New York lawyer and writer, sets his story in Florida, the
ideal place to play out the drama of a mind unhinging. The heat, the bugs,
the threat of tropical decay all seem to challenge sanity on a daily basis.
One little wrinkle in the fabric of our everyday reality, Aerenson tells
us, is enough to unleash chaos in our minds. Sally Martin, the protagonist,
is driving to the tennis club when she has a flat tire. Rather than fix
the tire, she decides to walk the rest of the way. As she's clambering
over the shoulder of the road, she comes across some road kill, a possum
with its little paws clutched together as if in prayer.
That's all it takes for Sally to take her flight over the cuckoo's nest.
The interesting thing about Sally's mental breakdown, especially as played
out by the terrific actress Mary Eaton Fairfield, is that it never leaves
the world of the familiar. Sally could be someone you know or, more frighteningly,
she could be you.
Sally's world of suburban sprawl - strip malls, mah-jongg with the girls,
a tidy home and family - is recognizable, but Aerenson turns up the surrealism
a few notches so that it seems more like the 'Twilight Zone' than real
life. Aerenson's vision of contemporary society is one that places us
all on the verge of a breakdown like Sally's.
'I'm having a problem with how things happen,' Sally says at one point.
So she stops trying to control things and just lets them take their course
while she follows her every impulse.
She abandons her husband and adolescent son and starts living in her car,
patrolling the streets at night to keep things safe from impending doom.
'Things really can't be how they are too much longer,' Sally warns.
Meanwhile, her son Clark (an intense, raging performance by Dan Wolf)
is having mental problems of his own. He breaks into people's houses,
brutalizes his roughneck friends and drives like a maniac hell-bent on
destroying anything in his path.
WIth this parallel madness going on, Aerenson doesn't appear to hold too
much hope for the American family. Issues of home and the illusion of
safety surface frequently over the course of the play's two hours.
Director Katie Bales wisely keeps the staging simple and elicits strong
ensemble work from her actors. In the first act especially, Bales manages
to convey a sense of horror as a familiar suburban world grows more and
Set designer Michael Frassinelli has crafted three playing areas on the
stage that allow for brisk scene changes, and he never clutters up the
action with too many props.
The second act, unfortunately, cannot hold the tension of the first. The
actors remain committed to their roles, but the writing disappoints. The
play is never less than interesting, though the arc begun in Act 1 becomes
frayed and doesn't let the characters evolve enough.
Last season, the Shotgun Players made a bid for the big time with the
American premiere of Ariel and Rodrigo Dorfman's Mascara, one of
the worst plays to come along in quite some time. Everything that was
wrong with that examination of identity and relationships is everything
that's right with The Possum Play.
In its flawed but quietly poetic way, Aerenson's play, and Shotgun's strong
production of it, offer an unsettling but provocative take on contemporary
society. How refreshing to discover relevant, unpretentious theatre that
manages to engage our minds and question our national sanity.
West , March 31, 1999
Aerenson's first script, The Possum Play, came to the attention
of the Shotgun Players via Sam Shepard's agent, and it's not hard to see
the connections between the two playwrights. Now receiving its West Coast
premiere at the Shotgunners' temporary home in South Berkeley, Aerenson's
script shares some of the rich, disturbing imagery of Shepard's best work,
and his obsession with the tame surface world vs. the chaotic underbelly
- along with a tendency to bludgeon dramatic images past the point of
Fortunately, as directed by Katie Bales, the Shotgun production largely
avoids the traps of the material, and manages to create several evocative
moments. That the show overall fails to completely cohere has more to
do with shortcomings in Aerenson's script than with the staging or performances.
Set in humid South Florida, 'between the mangroves and the malls,' The
Possum Play follows the disintegration of mah-jongg-playing matron
Sally Martin (Mary Eaton Fairfield), along with the increasing delinquency
of her troubled son Clark (Dan Wolf). The possum Sally discovers eviscerated
by the side of the road at the beginning of the play serves as a metaphor
(one belabored by Aerenson) for all the ugliness, death, and needless
cruelty in the world. Sally becomes convinced that she can save her son
only by cutting herself off from her protected, air-conditioned existence
and plunging whole-heartedly into the darker realms. This aspect of the
plot has echoes of Breaking the Waves; fortunately, Aerenson's
script stops short of the self-immolation that film required of its female
As his mother goes on her lonely mystical quest, Clark and his cronies
spend their time bragging about the girls with whom they may or may not
have slept, and trying to provoke straight-arrow Jordan (an appealing
Ryan Gowland) into exploring his own darker, violent impulses. The scenes
with the boys in the mangrove stand pulse with energy and unspoken rage;
as Turner, the most amoral of the gang, Ariel Shafir's blend of brooding
good looks and casual cruelty is often chilling. Wolf's vocal inflections
occasionally make him sound like a junior Joe Pesci, but his uncomfortable
yet yearning scenes with his troubled mother ring true. As Sally, Fairfield
is stronger in the second act than in the first, in which her overly mannered
approach to Sally's increasingly frail psyche distances us from the character's
Bales' staging keeps the cinematically structured scenes moving smoothly.
What hampers the production is that Aerenson simply tries to do too much
with what is essentially a simple parable about accepting what one cannot
change. His critiques of suburban housewives, though often funny, aren't
particularly fresh (though Pamela Wylie and Beth Donohue shine as two
of Sally's worried-to-distraction friends). Michael Frassinelli's set
and Alex Lopez's lighting work wonders in creating a mysterious and menacingly
monochromatic green jungle world with the sparest of resources, and Jon
Axtell and Alex Koberle's original score creates an eerie soundscape -
something like Tangerine Dream on Valium.
Weekly, April 8, 1999
is the first Shotgun Player production that's ever left me totally cold.
Henry V and others were excellent; Mascara stank; but this
strange suburban drama about mah-jongg housewives and mangrove swamps
in Florida registered a flat green line on my critic's voltmeter.
The script is by Benjie Aerenson, one of Sam Shepard's discoveries. It
opens with a story about Sally Martin, a neurotic mother, scooping a dead
possum out of the road with her tennis racket, then walking onto the court
and noticing a shiny drop of blood on the strings when she cocks the racket
to serve. The whole play is as disturbing as that single unlikely image.
It distills the headachey surfaces of the suburbs into something even
more headachey - like a David Hockney painting - without ever seeming
Sally's teenage son, Clark, is a delinquent who drives around with friends,
killing possums. He picks on a peaceful kid at school named Jordan; his
delinquent friends have nothing better to do than goad Jordan into a fight.
'He heard you've been sporting Lisa,' they tell him, Lisa being Clark's
girlfriend, and 'sport' being slang for just about any unmentionable word.
Sally has no idea that her son's a jerk; but when she learns that he's
responsible for most of the dead possums in the road, she gradually goes
insane. She skinny-dips in the mangrove swamps; she offers to clean her
girlfriends' houses. Her weird slip from middle-classness into moon-worshipping,
pagan fugue is interesting from a distance, but the show itself has no
life, no chemistry between the players.
The acting isn't the problem. Mary Eaton Fairfield is credible as Sally;
Dan Wolf stays within bounds as Clark, although his one-dimensionality
sometimes grates. Beth Donohue and Judy Phillips both do good work as
dryly levelheaded girlfriends of Sally's. The problem is the script, which
builds to a violent climax that feels less cathartic than lurid. Aerenson
never penetrates his glossy surfaces, and the flat line of his drama is
broken only by sudden, hilarious jokes.
The whole effect is kind of creepy."
Bay Guardian, March 31, 1999
know you're in for a grim evening when a play starts with roadkill and
degenerates from there. Benjie Aerenson's Possum Play, now premiering
with the Shotgun Players, opens with Sally (Mary Eaton Fairfield) encountering
that eponymous possum squashed in the road. Joining the long line of unbalanced
female protagonists being manufactured by American playwrights, Sally
is a Stepford wife who seems to have fallen out of the pages of a John
Cheever story and into the steaming penumbra of Miami.
mental meltdown begins the moment she steps outside her car into nature,
which persistently threatens to overwhelm the air-conditioned nightmare
that is much of south Florida. Her ensuing angst sends her reeling from
her comfortable but empty mahjong world into Miami's streets and mangroves,
dangerously searching out the real, unseen life beneath the plastic surface.
Sally's son Clark (Dan Wolf) is driven by similar compulsions, favoring
crime as a way to shred the web of societal mendacity.
crisp, demented sweetness is compelling, as is Wolf's sympathetic portrait
of an unhinged adolescent, and Aerenson does his best work in exploring
the loopy relations between mother and son. But then there is the dialogue,
cascades of language so purple they could make Clifford Odets blush, in
which Sally and Clark rant about the shape of their souls and the horrors
of the world. The play is also rife with such dramaturgical loose threads
as Clark's fierce antagonism toward his classmate Jordan (a touchingly
baffled Ryan Gowland), a conflict that simmers through the first act and
Aerenson throws in a lot of jet-black humor, which is frequently run over
in director Katie Bales's monotone production, and most members of the
large cast seem to be sleepwalking through the play's pervasive nightmare
atmosphere. Like Aerenson, I grew up in Miami, along many of the very
streets whose names and numbers the play invokes like hexes. But aside
from Carrie Marill's on-the-money subtropical costumes, I looked in vain
for a place I recognized. Miami can be enervating and vapid, yes, but
a seething cauldron of decadence, violence, and insanity? These characters
clearly reside on a different planet.
crystalline performance convinced me that Sally's soul truly is "the shape
of a dying animal," but why we should care remains a mystery. I think
it's time we questioned why the woman-on-the-verge has become such an
obsessive fixture in American theater. Even among women playwrights, it
seems as if the only acceptable way to portray female characters of complexity
and intelligence is to have them teeter on the edge of madness and self-destruction.
Surely there is life beyond the manic state -- even when that state happens
to be Florida.