You know what's so incredible about live theater? It's the eerie effect of seeing a story unfold in real time and real space. I mean, it's one thing to watch a story depicted on the screen; actors these days rarely appear to have wrinkles or pores or anything physically human about them. But when a story's enacted a few yards in front of us by people who sweat, spit, and bleed -- when we take into account that a few yards of space are all that separate us from the action -- we're reminded that we, too, are alive.
Killing My Lobster's presentation of Peter Nachtrieb's Hunter Gatherers not only reminds us that we're alive, but that modern men and women are in absolute thrall to our most primal urges. Hunter Gatherers, set in the living room of a sleek San Francisco loft, plays with the notion that though we live in a structured society full of straight lines and sharp corners, what drives us is neither straight nor structured but formlessly permeates our experience, like the fragrance of fresh-cooked meat permeates a city street.
In the play a married couple, Richard and Pam, slaughter and roast a lamb in celebration of their wedding anniversary. Killing the lamb is something, Richard says, that he and Pam can "do together" for their friends. "My entire life," he explains, "has led up to this day." Pam, true to her character, gives in to Richard's basest instincts because her concept of "niceness" means that she must stifle her own desires in service to others.
But when Wendy and Tom arrive it becomes clear that Wendy is more in touch with her basic desires than Pam. Indeed, Wendy has much more in common with the artistic and impulsive Richard than she does with her own rigid and passive husband, Tom. Given this dynamic and how well each of the four characters is rounded, the events of the evening rapidly turn, and then turn, and then turn again.
Expect to witness debauchery in a dizzying array of forms: sex, violence, wild and lustful eating, survival, S&M -- the play covers the gamut of basic animal urges. The characters in Hunter Gatherers continually push one another to their absolute limits, striving to realize their true purposes: Wendy, to give birth; Richard, to "spread his seed"; and Tom, to be physically dominated.
In current cinema there's something awfully pious about the idea of finding one's purpose; while the Titanic sinks, the quartet plays on and even hypothermia is beautiful. But the characters in Hunter Gatherers are guided by something much more limbic. If they were passengers on the Titanic, we get the feeling they'd be having a last-minute orgy in the captain's quarters after having killed and eaten him. The world of the play admits a hedonistic human core that maybe we, like the most stifled character, Pam, liken to anarchy. Maybe we fear intemperance.
In the end the play belongs entirely to Pam, who declares that she "want[s] to come of age in a brutal ritual." And oh, does she! Her final exit lent significance to the moment I stepped out of the theater into the wild urban San Francisco night. I headed back to my car with my -- okay -- my hunky date, and the smells wafting from the restaurants; the throb of crickets, I guess (or did I imagine this?); the strange warm breeze licking my shoulders -- well, it all seemed so poignant. Needless to say, the night was more compelling than the car and we took a detour. Hours later, full of beer, we realized that I'd locked my keys in the ignition. This, my friends, was a happy discovery, and no, I didn't do it on purpose! In San Francisco there are many ways to pass the time while waiting for Triple A...
Cast: Melanie Case (Pam), John Kovacevich (Tom), Alexis Lezin (Wendy), Jon Wolanske (Richard)
Director: Tracy Ward
Hunter Gatherers runs through July 9, 2006 (Wednesdays through Sundays) at the Thick House Theater, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco (Potrero Hill)
Ticket line: 415.558.7721