A Whodunit Gone Haywire

By John Domini, Center Stage Theatre Review: Cityview

Photo by Andrea Markowski

5/18/2016

At first, “Every Five Minutes” suggests a whodunit. Jay Jagim’s set threatens to drown us; it suggests a swimming pool, blue, sloping away to the far corner. Laura Sparks’ chatter, at the outset, grates on the nerves. Something is clearly awry for the friends gathered center stage. Their chairs and carpet are burnt orange and clash with the surroundings.

Yet, at drama’s end, whatever’s off-kilter remains that way. The mystery lingers in Todd Buchacker’s wildest experiment yet, his first year as StageWest’s artistic director. Buchacker’s note in the Playbill explains that he “fell in love with the play” at its 2014 premier in San Francisco, and he couldn’t be more grateful to his “fearless cast and crew.”

The faint of heart, however, would never tackle Linda McLean’s script, which delivers surprise after surprise. For 90 minutes without intermission, we cling to a thundering roller coaster — and “thundering” is just the word for Josh Jepson’s sound effects, which range from heartbeats to punk rock.

One moment the audience breaks into nervous chuckles, as Harpo and Bozo show up in wigs and makeup, plus bright long johns. The next, a hush falls as the clowns set up a torture chamber at the back of the stage. Between them the main character huddles, naked and hooded.

John Graham, as the protagonist Mo, has a couple moments of full-frontal nudity. These are just part of his carrying on, in one of the wildest chameleon acts Des Moines has seen.  He becomes a high-kicking Ninja at one point, as Disney’s “Three Little Pigs” screens silently against the wall (the projections are part of Jagim’s magic). Not much later, Mo prances through the fey number “Sisters,” alongside Harpo and Bozo in cheerleader skirts.

What distinguishes Graham’s performance, though, isn’t just the crazy business. MacLean’s script also keeps returning to a more restrained center. These moments show Mo surrounded by friends on the ugly center-stage furniture. People are trying to make nice, but the awkwardness of Sparks’ opening keeps cropping up. Another woman seems to be Mo’s wife, and she repeatedly expresses concern. Mo suffers troubling episodes, she reveals, and she drops hints that the man has been imprisoned and tortured. Then are the clowns and more — the nutty appearances by young women in rubber wigs, for instance — the hallucinatory flashbacks of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

The drama never solves the riddle, one way or the other, and this sets a terrific challenge for the people who have to play it straight — the wife and friends. Two, in particular, rise to the challenge. Sparks, so flexible last year in “Asher Lev,” again delivers, her jabber-like whistling past the graveyard. Martin Squier, who recently returned from Chicago, puts conflict into every grimace, striving to figure out what’s gone haywire. The same kind of fascination — enough to keep you talking all night — awaits anyone who tries this unique and provocative show.

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.