Woolly Mammoth: House of Gold

As I stood in the PWYC line for House of Gold at Woolly Mammoth last Tuesday, friends I knew involved warned me that the play was “weird.” Weird is basically what Woolly Mammoth does, so for a play to be weird even by their standards, well, it left me wondering just what I would be in for that night.

Pre-show, the lobby and house fills with the upeat techno sounds of cotton candy pop songs. The set is a three-tiered structure (a fractured doll house of sorts), hidden by curtains and walls. As the play begins the middle curtain pulls to the side to reveal a glistening white kitchen. Man (Michael Russotto) and Woman (Emily Townley) are in the kitchen, popping visually in their costumes of saturated purples and blues. They are silent; he is reading a newspaper, she is cooking breakfast. We hear the sounds of domesticity, amplified through two microphones. The scene continues without words, just eggs sizzling, newspapers rustling, and looks of discontent. Woman serves breakfast. Man eats. “Honey, what’s in this sausage?” “JonBenet Ramsey.” Blackout.

The opening scene lets the audience know exactly what kind of show this is. The script is less linear plot, more a series of vignettes, described by playwright Gregory S. Moss as a conch shell, spiraling around the central figure of the Girl -- sort of JonBenet Ramsey, but sort of not (Kaaron Briscoe).

The play opens with the eating of JonBenet Ramsey sausage and that indeed is what the play is concerned with – the way she and her story were consumed by the media and the American public. The way everyone, including her parents, projected onto her what they wanted to see, what they needed to see, instead of seeing the actual girl. This is amplified by the fact that the role of JonBenet Ramsey is played by a black actress in a blond wig. Each of the characters that JonBenet Ramsey encounters is obsessed by her, but not for who she is, but what she represents. As a result, her isolation grows as the play progresses.

The play is weird, and often the absurdities serve the story rather than detracting. But sometimes you can feel the playwright figuring out how to make something work and not quite getting it right. The scene where the Woman rights the ransom note for JonBenet is incredible. As she is writing she is distracted by the question of why the girl was kidnapped instead of herself. The Woman comes to the heartbreaking realization that she is no longer noticeable, that she no longer matters: “You no longer bend the light.” The Man’s monologue, when he tells his daughter about his high school years, is less successful, less clear.

But it is a world premiere, and very much a work in process. The script has changed throughout Woolly’s rehearsal process and it’s probable that the play that opened on Friday night was not the exact same play I saw on Tuesday.

The performances are solid all around, with especially strong performances coming from Randy Blair as JonBenet’s only friend Jasper and James Flanagan as probably pedophile Joseph M. Lonely, Jr.

Jasper has some of the most absurd lines of the play. He’s the neighborhood outcast -- an overweight boy with pasty white skin, tormented by bullies (The Appollonian Boys played with boundless youthful energy and menace by Andrew M. Lincoln, Ben Kingsland, and William Hayes (Hayes was out the night I saw the production and I don’t have a playbill insert with his replacement)). But Jasper’s hero is Richard Pryor, and everything he says is an attempt to be just like him. Blair nails the comedy in this situation with his dry manner and perfectly understated delivery.

Flanagan’s performance is spot on from his very first entrance, popping in and out of a trap in the floor of the stage. His movements are quick and nervous, and he reminds one of the creatures that shoot up out of the Whac-a-mole arcade game. In his monologue, where he tells JonBenet Ramsey that he wants to be eaten by her, so that he can fill her up and feel what it’s like to be her and have her skin, Flanagan manages the impressive task of being simultaneously creeping and touching.

House of Gold
is the kind of work I can really enjoy writing about. It’s the kind of play that ends and you think, “What the hell just happened?” But then two days go by and you find you can’t stop thinking about the piece.

3 stars
Through November 28


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