nytheatre.com review by Aimee Todoroff
August 13, 2011
The show Killing Nellie, performed by the duo Killin Nellie, is a cross between an open mic and a comedy cabaret routine. The stage is mostly bare, with only two microphones and a guitar set against a black wall. A small, stuffed sheep is dangling from one of the mics. Why is it hanging? Why a sheep? It’s an intriguing image, and one that makes you hope to hear the story behind it.
The lights come up and Rupert, played by Mark Storen, picks up his guitar and takes the stage. Rupert is an Australian folk-blues guitarist whose style leans towards rock. He is dressed hipster-casual in a t-shirt, black glasses and hat, and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his partner, who has not shown up yet. After a few genuinely funny false starts and technical glitches, Rupert has stalled for as long as he can and, with a angry strum of the guitar and yelling “Fuck it!,” Rupert starts to play. At just this moment, his truant partner appears at the back of the house, and the glamorous Embla, a Norwegian torch singer, flounces up to the stage. Embla, played by Oda Aunan, is all glitz, sequins and toothy smiles, her vamp a clear mismatch to Rupert’s angst.
This odd couple are not only partners, they are married and unhappily so. Embla only communicates in Norwegian, though is seems she can speak English if she wants to. Rupert can understand Embla’s Norwegian, but doesn’t speak it. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, we watch Rupert and Embla literally and figuratively speak different languages, failing completely to ever really reach each other. They perform almost a dozen songs together, each revealing another layer of the dysfunction in their abusive relationship.
The repetitive nature of their songs underscores the vicious cycle of distrust, anger and violence the pair has been living and playing out on the stage. This dynamic works well with the pairing of a song called “Mr. McGee,” in which Embla gleefully recounts a steamy sexual encounter with the titular man, while Rupert harmonizes daydreams of shooting his unfaithful wife’s lover. The humor turns dark, and the couple is clearly disturbed by what they’ve said and done to each other. They then transition to a song called “That’s What Happens When the Train Goes Wrong,” a deceptively simple but frantic tune that, like almost everything else in their relationship, quickly becomes cruel. That dangling sheep from the top of the show? The cutesy stuffed toy is just another way for Rupert to passive-aggressively torture Embla in revenge for her constant, grating emasculation.
Oda Aunan’s deft physical portrayal of Embla is clever and engaging. She has the audience’s attention through the entire play—a difficult task when only speaking Norwegian. Mark Storen is an endearing performer and a very talented musician. Both are charming actors and incredibly likable, but they are playing incredibly unlikable characters. There are hints that Rupert and Embla have a long and detailed history which would have been fascinating to have explored, and each character is drawn with great detail. Watching Killing Nellie is a bit like seeing part 5 of a 7-part series: you know something interesting has happened before the part you’re seeing, and you know it’s leading somewhere satisfying, but you’re only getting a middle slice of the story without much context. There seems to have been fun there once, but the audience is only presented with the dark, cruel and seemingly unredeemable, as if we missed the first 4 episodes where these people liked each other and we’d have to see a few more episodes before we’d get a resolution.