Directed by Kevlyn Hayes
Starring Matt Test
Produced by Found Objects Theatre Group
Playing at The Den Theatre
This one-man satire about the obsessions of a football fan borders on the verge of sadism.
As a theater critic, you’re often put in the uncomfortable position of being a “consumer advocate,” which means being an arbiter of taste for a “consuming” public. And thus, as a critic, you come to know with a fair degree of certainty what the American zeitgeist can withstand: that is, what it’ll willingly embrace, what it will accept only with sufficient cajoling, and what it will reject outright as being somehow beyond the realm of good taste. Mascot—by playwright and poet Chris Bower—is of the latter category. For better or for worse.
The premise of this one-man show—produced by Found Objects Theatre Group and playing at the Den Theatre—is deceptively straightforward. A “Man” (played Matt Test) is banned from attending his son’s high school football games and must find increasingly clever (and clandestine) ways to go. Why is he banned, you may ask? Well, good story, actually. His wife has apparently filed a restraining order against him on the grounds that he recently tried to openly solicit ways to murder her over Yahoo! Answers. Of course, as Bower’s antihero is quick to tell us, the whole mess was a gigantic misunderstanding. A fact which is true enough, though Bower leaves the question of who is misunderstanding who an open one. For what is most remarkable in Bower’s play is not the grand severity of his character’s actions (and they can be extreme), but the apparent disconnect he has from them—the sense we soon get that this is a lone consciousness working its way through the world, disconnected from others, prone to intense bouts of loneliness, and habitually unable to see himself as others do.
But that’s also what makes this messy, digressive, random and rambling piece so provocatively strange and unsettling. Less a story, per se, than a case study, Bower’s Man appears for all intents and purposes to be suffering from some kind of schizotypal personality disorder (or is he just an outright psychopath?). In addition to odd behaviors (including a long sequence wherein he blackmails a pedophile) and digressive ruminations (about, for example, how women “cockblocked” us into prohibition or how he’s uncomfortable by large women and considers them a burden on society), the Man sounds as though he were always teetering dangerously on the edge of incoherence, his emotional responses to life feeling grossly inchoate and his impressions of reality (poignantly those surrounding his son’s football abilities) so wildly out of sync.
At times, Mascot feels as thought its attempting to do for personality disorders what Sarah Kane’s 2000 psycho-monologue Psychosis 4:48 did for clinical depression, isolating the psychological symptoms in a dramatic vacuum and giving them a more or less unrestrained ability to manifest themselves. The audience—like a room full of clinicians—is thus always on the outside looking in, giving us the sense that what we are watching is something much darker than lies ostensibly on the surface, i.e. a scene of frustrated bondage and unflagging sadism. A man beyond our help, but who nonetheless approaches us with all the charm and insinuating familiarity of a self-knowing psychopath. Someone who evokes our pity even as we think he might be oddly dangerous.
Bowers has interests in those spaces where the prosaic and the dramatic blend seamlessly one into the other, and indeed, what will strike anybody sitting in at the Den is how incidental the physical space actually is. Considerable portions of the monologue are spoken in the dark, and Mascot’s skeletal set consists of little more than an armchair, a desk, and an orange chair (never sat in). The joke, of course, is that it doesn’t matter where the play is set. It could just as well be set in a crater on the moon or in an abstract realm of Platonic forms. For Bower’s Man is all but entirely removed from his environment, and if the play seems somehow disembodied, I have a feeling it’s supposed to. Its space is entirely psychological, and by consequence, takes on the weird appearance of a surrealist nightmare with the Man’s gradual transformation into his son’s high school Mascot (using a bear costume he literally pulled out a dumpster) darkly evoking the metamorphosis of, say, Thomas Harris’s Buffalo Bill.
Which is not to say that Bower’s Man doesn’t have charm. He does. Oodles of it. And Matt Test in the central role evinces an appropriate fidgety nervousness, a dissembling harmfulness, and a frantic energy that ebbs and flows erratically throughout Mascot’s otherwise brief 75 minutes. The Man’s narrative rhythms take getting used to—his digressions, regressions, and deliberate lies—and at first you aren’t sure what to make of Test’s enflamed eyes darting back and forth across the audience, peering into its vast reservoirs of darkness, looking for the nearest captive audience. Averting your eyes away won’t help. He will find you out, and he will tell you his story. Whether you want him to or not.
That said, Bower’s deceptively clever script has a kind of natural effortlessness, true to the errant rhythms of the Man’s unique ratiocinations though also evincing a strangely hands-off approach to narrative structure. Staying true to the voice of one’s character is a noble enough principle, though in this case, it feels more like an excuse to avoid making more consciously deliberate choices in its presentation. Still, I have a feeling that Bowers is probably a very smart writer who—if he wished to take the opportunity more seriously—might easily be capable of generating a sizable cult following (even as he is scorned by more commerical audiences) with this achingly dark brand of American satire.
For as demonstrated by the recent Boston bombings and the less recent massacre at Sandy Hook, the helplessly detached, atomized and morally wayward consciousness Bowers seems so interested in is no longer a fringe anomaly in today’s America. In fact, it appears to be spreading at an alarming rate. In this respect, Mascot raises awareness of something deeply insidious already lurking in the American subconscious. And for this reason, as I said, it broaches all limits of acceptable “consumer” taste. For better or for worse.
Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Sunday, May 5th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes with no intermission.
Mascot runs until May 26th, 2013. The Den Theater is located at 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. For reservations call 773-800-9479 or e-mail [email protected]. For tickets visit https://www.brownpapertickets.com/. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/mascot/6306/.