Craig Lucas' black comedy "Reckless" has found the right director. Pope Freeman's intense multilayered production at Santa Barbara City College's Studio Theater is reminiscent of Antonin Artaud's "theater of cruelty." And it corroborates Jerzy Grotowski's theory that the content of theater should be "myths of the blood" rather than fictions bearing on social life and behavior.
The plot has Rachel, a sort of 20th-Century Alice in Wonderland, catapulted through a series of events that ostensibly have to do with social life and behavior--but which may be fantasy, dream, memory or all three. Catapulted is not a strong enough image; if Alice fell down the rabbit hole, Rachel is a cat being dragged through a knothole.
It starts on Christmas Eve. Rachel is a normal, if slightly hysterical, wife in her own home, happily stuffing Christmas stockings for her children, chatting to her husband who suddenly informs her that he has taken out a contract on her life.
Cut to a roadside telephone booth in the snow. Rachel, in robe and slippers, gets a ride with a stranger, Lloyd, who takes her home to live with him and his deaf paraplegic girlfriend (who isn't really deaf and who may be his mother). Rachel changes her name, gets a job and life goes on.
On the next Christmas Eve, Rachel's husband arrives at the door with a bottle of champagne. Within minutes, he and the paraplegic girlfriend (who is clad in reindeer horns and a fake red nose) die a horrible death by poisoning.
Cut to Rachel and Lloyd (comatose and wearing a Santa Claus suit), who are back in the car running away to a new life, where they will change their names again. Lloyd will refuse to take off the Santa Claus suit or stop drinking champagne until the next Christmas, when he dies too.
Rachel is on the road again, and we follow her through several more bizarre Christmases, interspersed with scenes in which she tries to explain to various obtuse psychiatrists what has happened.
The funny thing is that it could all be true. Freeman has directed the actors to play it straight, as if it were true. This somehow creates a chilling effect that activates a seldom used section of our funny bone: We find ourselves laughing hysterically when Lloyd finally keels over in his Santa Claus suit; then we feel embarrassed when we realize that we are laughing at his death. But before we can buffer that, we are whisked off to the next incredible event. Nothing comes to rest in itself. Every event calls forth a new horror clothed in everyday dress.
The issues become life, death, sanity, recurrence, betrayal, recognition, salvation . . . the list is unfinished but it leads further away from mere social life and behavior.
The mise-en-scene deserves a paragraph--the stage is a claustrophobic jumble of all the scenery and props needed for 20 scenes. Thus as two characters sit on the double bed, they are inches from the red automobile they will drive in the next scene. Two hanging video screens record some of the action. The effect is disturbing, disorienting, dreamlike and wholly effective. Douglas Tal Sanders is scenic and lighting designer.
There are some good performances by Tom Rearden, Peter Alexander Flanders, Rachel Marie Bargiel, Even Caston and Aaron Levin.
Lucas is an interesting playwright. His "Prelude to a Kiss" is on Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award last year.
WHERE AND WHEN
"Reckless" at the Studio Theater, Santa Barbara City College West Campus, 721 Cliff Drive. Plays at 8 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $7, $5 students and seniors. Call 965-5935.