In 1991, I was thirteen and my angsty youth was picking up steam. I was busy learning from people like Christina Rossetti, Edward Gorey and Tim Burton that morbidity and whimsy often come hand in hand, and an obsession with death can be charming and fun. Of course, I was also wearing black leggings with whatever thick knit sweater in my closet was closest to black -- electric blue as it turned out -- and a very large, perm-like mane, restrained into the occasional side ponytail. While the monochromatic color scheme and Victorian references are absent, the leggings and hairstyles of the very early nineties are not, as trauma and death are offered up -- with a healthy dose of cuteness -- in Crowded Fire's Big Death & Little Death, which runs through March 4, 2007 at the Traveling Jewish Theatre.
Author Mickey Birnbaum describes Big Death & Little Death as "a head-banging tale of death-metal teens & pit bulls in the ceiling" on his blog, It Is in the Brewing Luminous. A finalist in the PEN USA 2006 Literary Awards for Drama, the play is set in the wake of the first Gulf War (Gulf War Sr.) and tells the tale of how two California teens cope with the travails of daily life while also dealing with their crazy parents -- who in this case are actually crazy. It was conceived of as an opener to a death metal show, although I can only assume its origins were grittier in tone than the final result. Sure, there's taboo sex, a wide variety of drugs, and a gun that becomes part of the central question answered before the play is over, but there are also plenty of scenes focused on laughs rather than tension, and a variety of amusingly awkward adolescent exchanges.
At its best, Big Death & Little Death takes a conventional moment in the life of an American teen and infuses it with a surreal, insanity-tinged atmosphere. Out of a strong cast, Lawrence Radecker as the traumatized Desert Storm vet dad and Tonya Glanz as a bitter, broken guidance counselor who needs serious amounts of guidance herself are most consistent at injecting this sense of reasonable madness into their characters. At its most mediocre, the artificially rapid-fire dialogue and lightly veiled references to bulimia seem a little forced. The two teens who are the main focus of the play aren't as edgy as their angsty characters should be -- rarely inspiring a sense of tension about the big decision they face: whether to go to college out of state or destroy the universe.
The short scenes with rapid transitions that make up the play were handled smoothly against the backdrop of the family home. The home, or specifically, its diamond-patterned wallpaper, immediately caught my attention as I sat down, with its intriguing flaps and their possibilities for being opened and moved and rearranged. However, the set design seemed to take inspiration more from the seventies than the nineties, a Desert Storm bumper sticker offering the only real indication of the time period, presumably to avoid any confusion about which Gulf War people were talking about. The costuming kept the audience in giggles, with stirrup pants for mom, an Esprit t-shirt and doc martens for daughter, and a truly horrifying ensemble of too tight, too new jeans, shiny patent leather boots with an alligator texture, leather bomber jacket, gold necklace and an improbable dirty blonde wig for a household visitor.
Ultimately, the big decision about whether to go to college out of state or destroy the universe is made, but I came away thinking more about the humor and sweetness in the script and production than the trauma and death in the subject matter.
Big Death & Little Death runs through Mar 4, 2007 at the Traveling Jewish Theatre in San Francisco. For Tickets and information, visit crowdedfire.org.