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THEATER REVIEW : 'Homicide': A Psychological Inquiry Into Mob Violence

August 11, 1995|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"It wasn't my intention to beat him to death," goes the chilling refrain of islanders recalling their participation in a collective "Involuntary Homicide" at the Actors' Gang. In fact, the limited influence of intentionality over behavior is exposed as a particularly disturbing cause of mob violence in this striking adaptation of Kobo Abe's sardonic comedy.

In well-known works like "Woman in the Dunes" and "Man in a Box," the late Japanese novelist and playwright displayed a genius for constructing isolated settings within which hidden social forces play themselves out in microcosm. "Involuntary Homicide" provides yet another clinical environment for psychological inquiry as its island residents nervously prepare for the inevitable investigation from outside authorities in the aftermath of a town hoodlum's brutal murder.

Spearheading the cover-up is the harsh, abusive Fire Chief (V.J. Foster), who conducts mock interrogations of the killers with Japanese-like guttural pronunciation and equally stressed syllables. A bare-chested, muscular barbarian who coaches and at times even supplies the words mouthed by his puppet witnesses, Foster's Fire Chief has no qualms about using violence to get the testimony he wants.

The first islander thrust into the spotlight is a Woody Allen-like whiner (Isaac Baruch) who constructs esoteric and often neurotic arguments to justify his part in the killing. John Lacy and Lauren Campedelli follow suit, and in their splintered testimony we learn that the victim (Mahryah Shain) was a purveyor of vice who forced the townspeople to play pachinko at knifepoint. All agree he was a bad man, but did he deserve punishment this brutal?

Their recollections and rationalizations keep leading back to re-enactments of the murder in graphic shadow play. In an unsettling twist, this repetition begins to make reasoning itself seem more like a contributing cause than a search for after-the-fact excuses.

The only resistance to the Fire Chief's disinformation plan comes from the local schoolmaster (Terrell Tilford). A typically Abeesque outsider who came to the island to "wash away all the impurities from my mind and body," Tilford's conscience-racked Teacher struggles to extricate himself from human muck, with devastating results.

In another context, his tragedy--or the subplot involving a deaf lookout (Jeff Fischer) and a courtesan (Wendy Barry) fleeing the mob's anger--might have played on our sympathy. But Abe permits no soothing entree for softer emotions as naked animal impulses wriggle like lab specimens under uncompromising scrutiny.

Despite some colloquial liberties in this adaptation, Ray Mickshaw's confrontational staging fits Abe's claustrophobic vision like a layer of skin. Rachel Hauck's rusted scaffold scenery and Ellen Lundquist's lighting (a post-apocalyptic glow pierced by intense color bursts) provide the pared-down backdrop for this often cacophonous sensory assault.

In other words, business as usual at the Actors' Gang.

* "Involuntary Homicide," the Actors' Gang Theater, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 19. $10. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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