Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Theater Review: 'Comfort in the Arms of the Damned' troubling but important

By Philip Doyle

"Comfort in the Arms of the Damned" is a hard show to like, but I sure want to.  It delves into a man’s struggle with mental illness and it is troubling.  He is taunted and bullied by voices in his head.  He suffers.  He explores suicide.  That makes this show a bit of a rough ride.

It’s kind of like supporting a strung out friend through a manic episode of neurotic banter, patiently rooting for a solution, but being annoyed that it is happening in the first place.  Is it fun?  Nope.  Is it important that you be there?  You betcha.

Winnie Wenglewick is a driving force at Denver's Dangerous Theatre, which presents regional premieres and original works that would otherwise go unseen in Denver.  Winnie has a knack for prioritizing a production budget, stripping away the technical shock and awe and focusing on originality, and the art of playwriting.  The result, regardless of popularity, is a creative effort that scores in nobility.  It may be a dangerous way to run a theatre, but it’s damn courageous as well.

Back to the task at hand, “Comfort in the Arms of the Damned” is a challenge.  Anyone who has ever been touched by mental illness or has lost a friend to suicide will no doubt feel uneasy with this play.  It will task you with emotional conflict.  In fact, I’m still conflicted.  On one side, this production is to be commended for presenting an intense and dark struggle in a uniquely provocative way.  On the other side, “Comfort in the Arms of the Damned” battles itself with too much dialog and too many scenes.

Tobias is a young man haunted by demons. As a boy, the monster hiding in his closet manifests itself, becoming Xavier, who constantly reminds the lad that nothing is real, not even love.  Twisting and distorting reality, the demon writhes in delight.  Tobias grows up knowing nothing but dreams, and the possibility that reality is nothing but maggot-ridden flesh, covered up in carnival make-up.

Needless to say, Tobias is dark.  Oh sure, on the outside he can seem like a nice guy, but on the inside, he is a tormented, suicidal, possibly a homicidal, mess.   His challenge is to be free of his demon, and discover the real warmth of a loving embrace.

Five women surround the character of Tobias. In most cases, they are voices and manipulations within his dreams.  His mother, Tessa (Teresa Champion), tries to maintain a sense of warm dignity.  Savannah (Corinne Denny), Lisle (Allison Murray), and Maryssa (Stacia Gordon), all exist in Tobias’s world, a place thrown askew by the monster, Xavier (Brittany Lacour).

Brian McDonell (pictured), who portrays Tobias, is reserved and at times too restrained.  McDonell has an interesting challenge, playing an innocent child thrown into a state of mania, so perhaps approaching the part on the timid side is a wise choice.

It was a pleasant surprise to find the part of Xavier being played by Brittany Lacour.  I have grown to admire Lacour’s fearless commitment to a role.  She plays a manipulative monster, but she’s still kind of fun to watch.  I have thrown her some high praise in the past, so I’ll hold back a bit now.

“Comfort in the Arms of the Damned” was written by Jonathan M. Vick.   I won’t kid you, it’s wordy.  For my taste, some lines seemed to be overwrought with alliterative description and metaphor, which brought me out of the moment.  The constant flow of dialog is no doubt a challenge for some of the actors.

It is difficult to watch “Comfort in the Arms of the Damned” and not be reminded of recent headlines.  Of what happens when person surrenders to the taunting voices, and their distorted reality collides into the real world.

It’s the brave producer/director Winnie Wenglewick who deserves great accolades for having the brass and chutzpah to present this dark and conflicted play.  Her raw technical approach and appreciation for playwrights and actors, becomes an art form on to its own.

After a brooding 97 minutes of “Comfort in the Arms of the Damned,” the proud director thanked her cast and the audience.  She then invited everyone to attend “Mafia Macbeth”, an improv show that was starting in fifteen minutes.  The lobby was bustling with energetic, beautiful people and Denver's Dangerous Theatre was serving tragedy and comedy, like a courageous theatre should.

Denver's Dangerous Theatre presents
Comfort in the Arms of the Damned through November 17.