nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
February 28, 2008
With its themes of sexual violence and clever use of high-tech multimedia elements, James Scruggs's and Kristin Marting's RUS(H) has all the markings of a downtown avant-garde theatrical production, but there is also something quite simple about its presentation. Structured in the form of a Greek tragedy, RUS(H) offers a compelling look into addiction and the yearning to feel something beyond one's normal day-to-day experiences.
The tragic hero here is Rus, a seemingly uncomplicated man who somehow feels detached from his own day-to-day experiences, and this takes its toll on his marriage to the vivacious Sireene, a powerful presence who is nevertheless starved for his affection. What sets things in motion is the appearance of Sonny—a methamphetamine addict who feeds off the sexual aggression of other men—and who acts as a figurative and literal roadblock when Rus runs him down in his car one fateful night. Sonny survives the accident, slowly drawing Rus into a secret relationship revolving around sexualized violence that leads Rus down a dark and dangerous path.
As in Greek tragedy, many of the salient plot points in RUS(H) take place offstage behind the scenes and are recounted from the subjective viewpoints of the three main characters. But RUS(H) never feels static—instead the play is suffused with movement and energy as it drives on inevitably towards its conclusion. Director Kristin Marting and choreographer Anabella Lenzu have created an engrossing physical landscape that explores and illuminates the characters and their personal relationships through a series of dances, and Qui Nguyen's choreographed violence between Rus and Sonny appropriately darkens the mood when it is called for.
The chorus of this tragedy consists of two "video puppets"—performers clad in black who do not speak but rather hold video monitors in each hand. These video puppets are used to great effect and they—combined with the video screen backdrop that replaces a more traditional set—are an ingenious stylistic device for a piece that is so much about what lurks unsaid under the surface. Providing foreshadowing and glimpses of the inner thoughts and feelings of these characters, they add emotional and psychological layering to RUS(H) in a way that doesn't bog down playwright James Scruggs's lean prose. Marting has integrated these performers into the physicality of the piece so that and they feel like a palpable force, and the concentration of the two performers behind the screens—Marc Bovino and Dax Valdes—plays no small part in making the whole trick work.
The principals all deliver excellent performances as well, relating their emotional essence to the audience in both words and movement. Luis Vega captures the inner complexity of the seemingly simple and straightforward Rus, and Chandra Thomas embodies the longing of Sireene without making her ever appear pathetic or weak. Lathrop Walker as Sonny exudes a creepy but charismatic malevolence—a dark black hole feeding off of Rus's masculine aggression. All three create fascinating portraits of people hungry for a more profound experience than what they normally experience, and all bolster their work with their own distinct styles of movement that further illuminate their characters.
The tale feels underwritten at times, and how it concludes is not entirely satisfying. RUS(H) feels like it stops at the right place in story but doesn't quite wrap up—and there is a sense of inevitability but not of catharsis by the end. Nevertheless, the gripping journey RUS(H) takes us on is well worth the ride. This latest collaboration of Scruggs and Marting marks them as an artistic partnership of thoughtful innovation and abundant talent, and RUS(H) stands as a creative cocktail of strong writing, effective staging, innovative stylistic choices, and fine performances.