Dallas — Most shows at Ochre House Theater defy categorization, and artistic director and house playwright Matthew Posey and his ensemble, credited with the original music and lyrics, continue the tradition with Original Man, a musical drama with a tragic aftertaste.
Joe (pirate-handsome Marcus Stimac) lives with his bedeviled drunken father, Old Joe (playwright Posey gone grizzled), and his hard-working beleaguered older brother, Lenny (poignant, unshaven Justin Locklear) in rural Ireland in the 60s, when rock stardom beckoned as an escape from the poverty, boredom and vice of an exhausted economy and a scabby home life.
Old Joe enters cursing on a set jammed with a stove on wheels, a dirty kitchen table and a junkyard fridge. Staggering around the stage, flanked by three musicians on the left and apparently innocent appliances on the right, the old man accuses his weary-looking, greasy-haired son of “drinking my beers.” Big, menacing Old Joe slaps the young man to the floor when the kid accuses his father of driving his mother to the grave. We’re off and cringing.
Posey’s legendary productivity (two dozen plays in two decades) expresses itself in drama and musical theater ranging from delightful comedy of the absurd in works like Morphing, a telling and hilarious riff on Eugene O ‘Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, to the profoundly tragic depiction of the ends of evil in Mean, a brilliant imagining of the chance meeting of the Manson cult in a desert honky-tonk.
From a middle-aged West Texas hermaphrodite come back to “raise the dead” in Sebastian to a couple of mean-assed aging actors in Old, A Vaudeville Tragedy, Posey employs unique characters, real and invented, to embody his tragic vision. He’s written revealing plays based on gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (14 Death Defying Acts) and junkie novelist William S. Burroughs (Bill). Posey imagined the young Hemingway stranded in the Spanish Highlands where passionate flamenco dance and violent criminals inspire his novel, For Whom the Bells Toll.
In Posey’s tragic vision, death is always just an overdose or a knife stab away. Meaning must be created from scratch. Any grace in such a world is mostly a kind feminine hand or a fierce, life-loving woman with the power to soothe and inspire. His recent portrayal of a gritty old astronomer tracking a black hole and dealing with the devil in Soft Noodle Map is almost Tempest-like in its celebration of the heavenly grandeur below which we live out our little lives.
Original Man emphasizes the squalor below. Unemployed and squeezed by violence and grief, Joe numbs the pain by sniffing coke and shooting up with his equally deadbeat pals at the kitchen table. His only escape from zombie-land is the music in his head. Joe stands and grabs the mike at stage center and sings “Pocketful of Rain,” a ballad about his miserable life delivered as a Joe Crocker caricature.
Perky neighbor Percy (Carla Parker in mama mode) stops by to bring the two men some piggy pies, put raving Old Joe to bed and join him sometimes. When things get really ominous, RayRay (Darren McElroy in black glasses and a glittering tux) shows up to encourage Joe, declaring, “I’m the Ray Charles inside you.” The two rock out in a rebellious “I Don’t Have Ta.” Joe and his buddy Cory (hipster Chris Sykes) talk about escaping to London to make it big in the rock scene. Will their coke-fueled dreams simply vaporize?
Meanwhile, back at the pub, brother Lenny gets in a forced fight with the nasty Mr. Butterfield (a sleazy, vacant-eyed Christian Taylor), the local moneylender and all-round village monster. On the run with his tough-talking girlfriend Shawnee (brittle blonde Monet Lerner), Lenny grabs his guitar and sings “Less Ahead, Better Behind,” a song that sums up the philosophy of the show. Things get worse and worse and worse and worse.
Joe’s hapless wannabe girlfriend Tilly (a touchingly vulnerable Quinn Coffman), coming down from a heroine high, has a compelling conversation with a seductive open oven door (designed by puppet-meister Locklear), and Old Joe sings a gravelly and wrenching gospel, “Goin’ Home.”
All eight characters get a shot at the mike, literally singing their hearts out, backing each other as a chorus and accompanied by the three musicians onstage, joined by Locklear, doubling on guitar. Keyboardist Kate Fisher carries the show forward here, along with Trey Pendergrass on drums and Aaron Gonzales on bass. Gonzales delivers a shivering riff on bass between acts, a twanging downer tune in minor chords, evoking the mayhem to come.
The soundscape blends with the script in this sometimes murky, but often startling show. Working class Irish accents occasionally obscure a word or two, and tend to fall away when everybody sings, but add verbal reality to this collage of a play.
By the time we’ve heard the dozen songs and met the people around him, we want Joe to make it. Stimac’s sweaty, hopeful musician-in-the making is so eager to escape and so touchingly devoted to his muddled, abusive father, we’re pulling for him throughout.
Original Man may have a familiar plot, but the Ochre House ensemble actors are the lively ingredients that make each of these motley characters an original.