Prison dramas are usually informed with a hyperextended sense of realism, its inmate characters condemned to life behind naturalistic bars. The action in "Short Eyes," for example, could happen. That's why these plays are so easy to make into movies.
Whatever your stance on Rick Cluchey's "The Cage" at the Odyssey, one thing is beyond debate: This is one prison drama that will never be made into a movie.
The writer-director-actor must take some glee in this, upset as he is about "Weeds," the movie that he claims took extreme liberties with his experiences as founder of the San Quentin Prison Workshop (Cluchey had been sentenced there to life without parole but was later released). Whatever may have been done to his life, Hollywood won't dare touch his play.
The San Quentin Prison Workshop first brought "The Cage" to Los Angeles in 1970, which was when Cluchey last performed in it here. Since then, he has deepened his working relationship with Samuel Beckett. As his performance as Hatchet shows at the Odyssey, there's nothing like working with a genius.
To those who only know Cluchey from his performances in Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape" or "Endgame," what is remarkable is how "The Cage" and Hatchet's character are so unlike Beckett. This crazed inmate rules the cage and his three fellow inmates out of his own highly verbose and Bible-informed madness. The trick of a convincing performance is to make us believe, if only for the highly charged minutes in the theater, that it is madness divinely inspired.
Impossible, perhaps, but the great performances almost always are. Rather than Krapp or Nagg, what Cluchey's Hatchet recalls is a Richard III sifted through Elmer Gantry. He is both gigantic in voice and precise in detail and nuance.
It is also a performance that triumphs over the text.
In fact, so strong is everything and everyone else in the production, that you wish the play itself could catch up with it. "The Cage" is a child of the mid-'60s (1965, to be exact), and while half of it shows an imagination pulled toward the experimental magnets of the Living Theatre, Jerzy Grotowski and Beckett, the other half is hobbled by the need to send a message.
Nothing wrong with that, except that the medium for the message--a brand-new prisoner named Jive (Stefan Kalinka)--is a predictable victim of the cage's savagery. Jive, a college graduate, claims he's innocent of his girlfriend's murder, but he's more deeply innocent of life's potential for harm. Once prisoners Al (William Hayes) and Doc (Douglas Van Leuven) see him and cry out, "Fresh meat!" it's all over for Jive.
The tension at this point is not if Jive will die, but who will make love with him first. Doc, an ex-boxer, has an advantage over Al, handicapped by a bum ankle. Yet Al has his own malicious means of evening the score.
Hatchet, though, has the advantage over everybody. He commands an army of loyal followers around the altar of a single toilet bowl in the middle of the cell. He condemns Jive, but he rescues the play from melodramatic bathos. Hatchet is so eloquent and demonically fierce that only the theater could have made him. You wonder how Jack Henry Abbott of "In the Belly of the Beast" would contend with this literary animal.
These men, of course, were made into animals by the place. Cluchey knows he doesn't have to italicize the point. As director he takes care that Hayes, Van Leuven and Kalinka don't fall into the cliched mannerisms of snarling cons and wimpy victims. Kalinka, at moments, even suggests that Jive might be able to hack it. Cluchey seems to have infected everyone with his own heightened energy and precision of method.
Like Cluchey, Hayes, the author of "Midnight Express" knows something of this world. He still has the long stare he might have obtained from his long nights in a Turkish prison. His Al is a disturbing depiction of pure fear, and the need to spread it around.
The tomb-like setting is hauntingly realized by Brandy Alexander, and the uncredited lights create out of this space alternating worlds of stark grayness or dream-like terror. Gunner Moller Pederson's fine minimalist score is the musical equivalent of water dripping on your head.
Performances are at 12111 Ohio Ave. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., until Jan. 24. Tickets: $12.50-$16.50; (213) 826-1626.