Biter (Every Time I Turn Around)
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Biter (Every Time I Turn Around): Theater review by Helen Shaw
Thirty of us crowd into a tiny, low-ceilinged room of a building—a shack, really. The playing space has been jammed into one end under low beams: You couldn't wedge a decent bunk bed in there, but somehow Title:Point's giddily gorgeous Biter (Every Time I Turn Around) fits perfectly. Ryan William Downey and Spencer Thomas Campbell's lunatic farce feels cold and fresh, a bracing change from an experimental scene that can seem to have lost its teeth. But Biter's got bits that go back generations—its hilarious central act is basically a tarted-up Abbott & Costello routine, if those two had stumbled onto a Richard Foreman set and been horribly murdered there.
The piece is actually two plays. Ryan William Downey's Biter is the frame play, and it gets us going with what seems to be a rather run-of-the-mill, hallucinogenic violence. A couple in expressionist black-and-white makeup (Ryan William Downey and Catrin Lloyd-Bollard) natter; they're interrupted by a one-eyed postman (J.R. Rose); he goes berserk. This feels like a mash-up, like the end of The Shining being projected over The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.
The sharp shift into Campbell's Every Time I Turn Around, though, takes us unawares. Suddenly Downey and Lloyd-Bollard—still painted like silent-film clowns—have become an old-fashioned music-hall double act, their repetitive patter and harassment (“You're an idiot!”) taking disturbing turns (“You're a vertical miscarriage!”). They too have a visitor, though this one should be less frightening: young birthday boy Bear (Justin Anselmi, in a very grimy teddy-bear onesie). The clowns try to throw him a party, he goes into astonishing fits of rage. Madness ensues, with a talking fish (Campbell) and an actual dead fish (fish) contributing their distinctive odors, and not even a visit from hilarious E. James Ford as the International Sleuth-Hound can sort out the resulting bloody mess.
What sets the evening apart from crazy-for-crazy's-sake theater is the directorial team's fierce understanding of comic techniques (repetition, physical lazzi) and the ensemble's uniform excellence. There's also the playwrights' astonishing pace, which means that low-humor laughs (Anselmi's series of pratfalls) syncopate with the slower-burn humor from the script. A concatenating series of complaints cycles through one zany portion: “I'd rather be stabbed on a bus!” becomes, after some escalation, “I'd rather read a fat boy's diary!” You laugh as your brain catches up to the joke, but you're already laughing at somebody hurling a prop at Bear, and you find yourself in that delirious state of laughing at everything at once.
Most excitingly, work like this still has the power to shock. It's hard to construct much of a defense against gonzo performances with such muscle behind them. The last show I can remember with this quality of sincere anarchy was the Radiohole remount of Tom Murrin's Myth (or Maybe Meth), in which the stage went slippy with, ahem, unfeigned liquids. You thought impulses like this had been groomed and MFA-ed out the theater—you thought you missed out on the early Foreman pieces, and that performance art had taken over the really outrageous parts of live entertainment. Good news: That thrill is still out there. The bad news? Biter closes on Saturday and the space is sold to its trembling walls. I want you to go, and I know getting in will be a long shot. But boys and girls, we still have the power of belief. If we all put our hands together, Tinkerbell can live—create the demand, and maybe Biter will rise to bite again.—Helen Shaw
Silent Barn (Off-Off Broadway). By Ryan William Downey and Spencer Thomas Campbell. Directed by Theresa Buchheister, Joey LePage and Brian Lady. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 10mins. No intermission.