A Brief History Of Murder
nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
January 17, 2010
Here's a plot for you: a young woman is murdered and another goes missing in a small, seemingly isolated American town. An investigator with unique but fruitful methods of thinking is brought in to track down the culprit. The town is full of eccentrics, including a slim, weak deputy who is embarrassingly sensitive at every crime scene, a shady foreigner with a thick accent and unseemly connections, an ethereal chanteuse who sings eerie jazz in a shadowy lodge, and a terrifying and elusive vagrant with shaggy gray hair who may or may not be perhaps an ancient evil entity with the powers of possession. As the investigator, with the help of the local police, attempts to solve the murder, more bodies begin to pile up, unexplainable visions and hallucinatory characters begin to drop frustratingly obtuse clues, and we realize that the ramifications of these crimes stretch far beyond our own human comprehensions. Also, the town seems to have a systemic obsession with pastries, and there's always the sound of cool vibraphones and/or sustained synths in the air.
If that sounds familiar to you at all, chances are you've probably seen David Lynch and Mark Frost's landmark television series, Twin Peaks. However, as I discovered last weekend, it could also mean that you've just seen Sneaky Snake Productions' A Brief History of Murder. As the above paragraph shows, it's a strikingly similar theatrical approximation.
The company's pretty up front about their inspiration, describing the show as a "mind-bending collision of Grand Guignol, David Lynch, Broadway musicals, and police procedurals," but even knowing that going in, I was taken aback by just how much the production borrows from the early '90s cult phenomenon. That being said, though, I have little doubt that the production team is well aware of the levels of homage at play here, and, all told, the show's got a few novelties in store for even an exhaustive Twin Peaks fan like myself.
A Brief History of Murder, written by Richard Lovejoy, is an ambitious two-play cycle of sorts: the two plays, Detectives and Victims, complement (and occasionally supplement) each other by providing alternate perspectives of the same incidents. We may drop into the middle of a given scene in one play, but witness the events leading up to that scene in the other. It's an enjoyable experiment in narrative and both plays together make for a fascinating, though occasionally frustrating, viewing experience.
Victims carries an air of tense, almost cosmic, mystery to it, as if we're being dropped into the middle of a mythological struggle that's far out of our league. But it's mainly atmosphere. This is not a play you should go to expecting any delightful payoff of a clear narrative and nuanced characters—it's essentially a series of vignettes occurring within the town of Sentinel, Oklahoma, strung together by a mysterious/murderous common denominator: Fenrus, played with enjoyably creepy and lupine bravado by Timothy McCown Reynolds.
We meet plenty of quirky townsfolk, and there are more than enough well-executed death scenes (pun thoroughly intended), but the play is hampered by an overall awareness of itself. The playwright's jokes hit you square on top of the head—actors even deliver them turning out to the audience, at times—and the general hamminess hampers the final product. It lacks a foundation of realness to support all the quirk, which is essential to the payoff of the more horrific elements.
That's not to say that there's nothing to recommend Victims, though. It's definitely out-there, and the gore effects are delightfully well done (by Laura Moss). You may not come away from it with any indelible insights into the human condition, but Victims does an excellent job of cultivating and indulging in a jolly sense of overall madness. You catch on pretty early that you're in for a kind of sketch comedy horror show, and so you can enjoy it on its own terms, whether or not you were hoping for anything a bit richer.
Detectives, on the other hand, is a far more satisfying play in and of itself. As you might have guessed, this version of the story is focused on those investigating the chaos we witness in Victims, and we have much more of an effective audience cipher in the character of private investigator Andi Summers—thus the piece as a whole has a more palpable dramatic arc. The ensemble, too, works much more coherently in this piece, as not as much emphasis is being put on how kooky the town is.
I must admit, though, to having some issues with the character of Andi Summers. I can't quite assign this to any shortcomings in the actor's performance—Anne Carlisle is plenty talented, with an authentic naturalness and vulnerability that never feels calculated—but, costumed in hip, casual clothes, the character of Summers ends up coming off more like a young, flustered student than an experienced private eye with a serious reputation.
The two shows together employ a cast of 20 actors. Though Victims and Detectives each have their own lead characters, they're both elementally ensemble pieces, and thus it's a bit difficult to single out any particular actors for praise or critique. Some are certainly much stronger than others, but to focus too much on any particulars seems a bit unnecessary, especially considering the pace at which the pieces move.
Besides, all their performances go towards supporting the two plays' shared main character: the town of Sentinel, itself—a town whose crest (designed by its batty, possibly immortal mayor) seems to be a minotaur head-butting a squash. As a showcase for the character of Sentinel, A Brief History of Murder succeeds marvelously—aided in no small part by some fascinating program notes courtesy of Michael Criscuolo.
The production itself is an admirable undertaking. Director Ivanna Cullinan doesn't flinch in her execution of staging such a potentially unwieldy piece—and you'll even see her working hard as one of the gore-moppers during most of the scene transitions. These transitions, too, are, for the most part, surprisingly quick and painless, given how many locations there are to tackle. In Detectives, most of these transitions are covered by voiceovers of phone calls. A couple of these go on too long, and several of them are performed rather unconvincingly, but they don't end up taking anything away—again, it's all done in the name of bringing the town of Sentinel to life.
One question remains: do you need to see both plays, and, if so, is there a particular order in which you should see them? Let me attempt to answer both of those questions anecdotally, starting with the latter.
My companion and I saw Victims before Detectives. We both agreed afterwards that that was the better order in which to experience both. Victims leaves a lot to be desired as far as plot and character go, and Detectives does a good job filling in the desired missing pieces. Detectives is a complete enough play that I would worry one could feel disappointed in seeing Victims afterwards, as it would just kind of serve as an abstract echo of what they'd already seen. However, Victims does add a ton of atmosphere, and going into Detectives with all of that eeriness already in mind goes a long way towards enriching the experience.
Plus, there's a delightful sensation of frisson experienced when seeing Detectives second—a sort of combination of deja vu and being in on some inside joke that starts the play off on a great foot.
So, if you can see both, I'd recommend it—I'm quite glad I was able to. You don't get to experience many event productions like this, particularly with such a sense of balls-to-the-wall abandon. Any critiques aside, the day I spent in Sentinel, Oklahoma, was a hell of a day. And, particularly since I got to be so well-acquainted with the townspeople and their fates, I count myself lucky that I got out of Sentinel in one piece.