Kevin Rolston’s one-man show, Deal with the Dragon, doesn’t start big. It just kind of unfurls in front of you. There are no explanations or big scenes, and nothing that lets you easily gauge the scope and ambition of this strange, satisfying tale of emotional and spiritual ineptitude.
The play begins with art criticism of the most debased kind, as Brenn (Rolston), suave and of Germanic origin, finishes writing a Yelp review of one of those museum extravaganzas that tours the world -- Treasures of the Louvre. Rolston’s acting and M. Graham Smith’s direction are almost non-committal at this point. There’s a whiff of parody, of euro-aesthetes who find America both delightful and repulsive. Yet right from the start, you can sense the show resisting what it sets up. As if it were necessary for us to feel the caricature and reject it at the same time.
We soon find out that Brenn is also another recognizable type: the artist’s caretaker. He is the financial and emotional support for Hunter (Rolston again), a needy painter struggling to finish his masterwork and one of two finalists for a prestigious museum show. Brenn feeds Hunter fresh doughnuts, threatens his threatening bill collectors, and genuflects before his talent.
He's the unsung hero of another man's ambition, a rather common trope in the tortured artist genre. Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo might be the best examples of the idiom and John Logan's preposterous take on Rothko, Red, the worst. There are scores of other dramas that follow these lines and Rolston knows that. And he knows that we know, and even as he gives us that story in full bloom, it turns out to be far from the story that we're going to get.
So instead of a drama of heroic creation, the play goes back in time -- way back to 1574 -- to explain whom Brenn is and to suggest that Hunter might have a more serious problem than a lack of artistic inspiration. You don’t have to be very alert to guess that Hunter's soul is in peril, and that Brenn’s devil-may-care attitude might tend towards the Devil. What’s funny -- for us, if not Hunter -- is that Rolston jettisons one set of clichés, the tortured artist, to plunge us headlong into another: the Satanic pact.
Yet again, on all levels of the production -- writing, acting, and directing -- there’s a sly underplaying of these well-worn tales. Clichés demand a follow-though that Deal with the Dragon wisely undermines, and so even though we know these stories, we have no idea where Rolston is going with them. The play remains disquietingly up in the air, much like the baobab tree -- also commonly known as the devil tree -- that hangs above the stage.
That is until we meet Hunter’s competition for the museum show -- Gandy Schwartz (again Rolston). He’s the last minute substitute speaker for an AA meeting. The only problem is that he’s not much of an alcoholic and more of narcotics man. Or as Gandy bluntly assesses the situation, “the real speaker flaked . . . so fucking deal!” What follows is an amazing tour de force of writing and acting -- a comic and shocking scene of surprising, raw despair.
For a play that has daintily teetered between soap opera and fairy tale, Deal with the Dragon suddenly snaps into the real world. We aren’t just watching anymore, but are instead part of the architecture of the scene, passive participants in the grand drama of an AA confessional. And yet we haven’t lost the rest of the play either. Everything that Gandy speaks of is a reflection of everything that we have seen before.
And so it turns out that nothing is really ever a cliché, even a man who seems to embody every single stereotype of a strung out, hostile queen. Rolston’s portrayal of Gandy is breathtaking and his AA rant is as good a 12 minutes as you are likely to get in a play this season. How Rolston works this all out is for your enjoyment. Although, rest assured, the tale of Brenn, Hunter, and Gandy twists and turns all the way to the end.
Deal with the Dragon plays through Saturday, Apr. 16 at ACT’s Costume Shop in San Francisco. For tickets and information go to dealwiththedragon.com.