Pontiac Firebird Variations
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
July 6, 2011
An ever-evolving riff on a single scene (Act I, Scene IV, mostly the portion of it that consists of a conversation between two murderers) from Shakespeare’s Richard III, set to a soundtrack of seventies and eighties hits reinterpreted by a lounge pianist, Aztec Economy’s Pontiac Firebird Variations loosely—very loosely—translates the Wars of the Roses to New York in the 1980s. The Tower of London becomes a chop shop in Queens, and the battling factions of York and Lancaster become Coke and Pepsi—the Cola Wars. The real crime bosses, Big Ed and Richard, remain offstage; what we see is six aspiring murderers, each with a preferred weapon and each tasked with killing Richard and Ed’s sister Clare (Shakespeare’s Duke of Clarence refigured as a tough girl with a slightly unconvincing visionary streak), who’s chained up in the chop shop and guarded by one of Richard’s enforcers.
All the hit men take on aliases that are some metamorphosis of Richard. Rico is a Cuban hit man with an unhealthy attachment to his very large knife (who might not actually be Cuban or a hit man); Ricky and Dickey are brothers from the South, a mechanically gifted “white trash savant” and his brother/caretaker, a chop-shop mechanic; Dick is a slightly older, take-charge kind of guy with a Nixon mask and a serious aversion to mustard; Ritchie is a lanky British gangster type whose name and manner inevitably seem to reference a Guy Ritchie film; and Ryszard is a Russian-Polish former exterminator with a penchant for poison. All are alternately plagued by conscience and motivated by both the promise of a hefty reward and a desire not to get on a crime boss’s bad side. Through a series of overlapping, multiplying, twisting variations on the brief snippet of Shakespeare, in various pairs the murderers debate, discuss, and decide whether or not to follow through on the warrant and kill Clare. In the end, of course, the deed gets done, though perhaps not in the way one might expect—and Clare may not be the only casualty by the time the wars are over.
While the variations on the theme, and the constant replaying and re-echoing of such a small segment of text, give the piece its structure, it’s really most interesting when it veers the farthest from Shakespeare—in the offbeat portrayals of the cadre of murderers. With the exception of Clare (that is, the character drawn the most directly from the source material and given the least opportunity to deviate from it), the characters come to life in idiosyncratic outbursts and scenes tangential to the murder-plot throughline: Rico talking about killing chickens in Cuba; Ritchie and Dick squabbling in a McDonald’s drive-through line; Ritchie vehemently and viciously taking offense at Ryszard’s English; Ricky and Dickey using TV-style wrestling moves to take down Ritchie; or, in an odd scene called “The Rico Variation,” Brakenbury coaching an actor/Rico in constructing the character we know as Rico in all the other variations. I didn’t always understand where playwright Casey Wimpee’s variations were going, but his characters, even in these fitful outtakes, have propulsive energy, and the way they embrace and relish violence is both magnetic and frightening. And the acting ensemble, too, seems to really engage most effectively when outside the Shakespearean framework; I especially liked Christopher Baker as Ritchie and Isaac Byrne as Dickey, but the entire murderers’ chorus is vividly realizing these dangerously weird characters.
Visually, the piece is exciting; director Matthew Hancock keeps most of the company on stage for most of the piece, spying on, eavesdropping on, circling and investigating each other; there’s always something happening on the periphery or just outside the field of vision of the main action, which adds another unsettling undercurrent.
The problem is that the main action (and certainly the source material), no matter how many iterations it’s put through, isn’t quite enough to hang a full-length play on. The undercurrents, the darker themes, the underlying questions about violence and aggression and manhood, loyalty and conscience, the nature of the human soul; the motley crew of criminals with their own agendas—it feels to me like all of this is starting to burst the seams of the source material and coexist uneasily with it. Pontiac Firebird Variations is an often-intriguing piece of theater—visually inventive, stylistically imaginative—that feels like it started as an experiment and hasn’t quite grown all the way to being something more. I’d like to see the thing it grows into.