Amid the shell-shocked silence as the crowd was shuffling out — after the “curtain call” (there was no curtain) signaled that “Every Five Minutes” had reached its abrupt end — a man murmured to his companion, “It was entertaining. Weirdly entertaining.”
It was also a sensory assault that threatened to leave the StageWest Theatre Company audience as disoriented as the lead character. His name is Mo; he has recently been released from 17 years of captivity and torture and is now making a rocky return to life at home. Since so much of this work by Scottish playwright Linda McLean takes place inside Mo’s head, where he sees and hears and imagines threats that the other characters can’t (but the theater can), it requires a performance that can both jolt the audience and elicit its empathy.
The bravura acting by John Graham as Mo does just that, and the inventive, masterful staging under the direction of StageWest’s Todd Buchacker finds a common denominator for slapstick farce and psychological devastation. Amid the barrage of sound and shifts of scene, there is no comfort zone, no chance to become complacent and allow your mind to drift.
The set-up is deceptively straightforward: Mo’s wife Sara (Rebecca Masucci) has invited their married friends, Rachel and Ben (Laura Sparks and Martin Squier) for their first visit since Mo’s release to see how he is doing. He is not doing well. He might be drugged or deranged; he’s often comatose. He makes some caustic remarks about the other couple’s relationship (a little like a Virginia Woolf homage), and the audience laughs — nervously. His relationship with his own wife seems hollow (and she plays a thankless role compared with his).
The play will often return often to that same scene, but the production staggers through a series of blackout vignettes, many of them shorter than the titular five minutes, unmoored in time, place or reason. In his freedom, Mo can’t escape his terror of captivity, of the coercion by a pair of clowns — a malevolent Bozo (Jake Lieberton) and an articulate Harpo (Tom Mann) — who have stripped him of his defenses, psychologically and literally (though there’s no prurience in the full-frontal nudity). The antic energy that Bozo and Harpo bring to the stage make them riotous foils for Mo and provide madcap contrast to the mannered chatter of the living room.
As the play lurches back and forth through time and space, it’s plain that Graham’s challenge as Mo involves portraying a number of characters: an abused child, an overly affectionate sibling, a possible war criminal, the Big Bad Wolf (likely in reference to the charges against him), a soft-shoe hoofer, a loving husband, a cowering prisoner. He is a man terrified by the world around him, by every movement and noise, real or imagined.
He fears a mother who is always there, in his mind, and he fears a father who was never there, in his life. He encounters a number of father figures, including God, in top hat and tails. He needs the audience to meet him halfway, to put together the pieces of his shattered life like a jigsaw puzzle. He must act with his eyes — crying or tender or crazed — and with his whole body, and he must find some unifying force to hold all of these unstable characters inside him together.
The last half hour or so has the play spending more time in the here and now, the stretches of domestic interplay longer, the flashbacks fewer and of shorter duration. Mo must be readjusting, though, at the end of these very intense 75 minutes, he is still well short of redemption. And the theatergoers expecting some sort of illusory closure are left wondering just what hit them.
It isn’t a perfectly polished piece (a couple lines were flubbed), but it is powerfully disturbing. If this isn’t your idea of entertainment, you’ve been forewarned. But if it is, you don’t get many chances in Des Moines to experience cutting-edge theater that twists the blade like this.
‘Every Five Minutes’
When: Through Sunday
Where: Kum & Go Theater at the Des Moines Social Club, 9th and Cherry streets
Ticket prices: $30 ($15 for students, $22 for seniors). 515-309-0251