Matthew Reddin

“Behanding” hilarious, but sometimes tough to handle

The World's Stage production of this McDonagh work puts questionable material in the best light with stunning performances.

By - Jan 28th, 2013 01:12 am

At the end of A Behanding in Spokane, one character turns to the other and says, “This should be grisly, but it isn’t. … It’s kind of fun.”

They’re talking about throwing dismembered hands into a suitcase.

They could very well be talking about Behanding too. There’s a great deal in the play that could be off-putting or disgusting or merely wrong. And yet somehow, we’re laughing all the way through.

The World’s Stage Theatre Company show, running at the Milwaukee Fortress as the third installment of their Martin McDonagh series, is a bizarre tale following Carmichael, a man looking for his dismembered hand (Zach McLain), a couple (Liz Faraglia and Aaron Phifer) trying to sell him a hand that is very much not his own (it’s black, Carmichael isn’t), and Mervyn, the nihilistic hotel receptionist (Martin McMahon Bergquist) who inserts himself into the action.

McDonagh’s play is somehow even madder than that sounds, absurdity bordering on capital-A Theater of the Absurd. All four cast members cartoonishly overact, but with the exclusion of Phifer, who takes a few scenes to warm up as the whiny, childlike Toby, they keep it entertaining instead of irritating. Different approaches help make the tactic more palatable; Faraglia’s Marilyn is belligerently, willfully, endearingly stupid while Bergquist simply wanders around stage with a too-carefree attitude that chills as often as it amuses.

Carmichael is something else altogether. He is certainly mad, but he’s broken too, a combination that elicits sympathy in your everyday play.

His self-avowed, unbridled, unapologetic racism makes that sympathy harder to feel. There’s a Tarantino sensibility, for lack of a better term, to Behanding, and it comes out mostly in Carmichael. Let’s just say the number of pejoratives starting with the letter N is the most you’ll hear on a Milwaukee stage anytime soon, and that isn’t even the limit to the epithets used throughout the play.

I’m not entirely sure yet what to make of this. On the one hand (sorry), the play’s tone, cultivated by co-directors Robby McGhee and Mara McGhee, leans toward jet-black, oh-god-I-can’t-believe-I’m-laughing-right-now comedy across the board, which means the bile and profanity used in Behanding is done as best as it can possibly be done. On the other, no matter how well the directors and actors can make it work in context, it’s undeniably gratuitous, even knowing McDonagh does this sort of thing. So buyer beware.

The one thing I can confirm about Carmichael is that McLain does an exemplary job with a gritty, rough role. He’s aged all wrong of course – the play itself tells us Carmichael must be hovering around 45 years, while McLain might be on the far side of his 20s – but he has the festering rage of an older man, and honestly, it’s tough to do something logical like math in the midst of the play’s insanity.

The other hard role in Behanding is Mervyn, and Bergquist taps into him intuitively. Were this slapstick, Mervyn would just be the bumbling receptionist. Instead he’s the play’s most self-aware, aimless character, periodically popping into the hotel room to taunt a handcuffed Toby and Marilyn and deliberately pissing off Carmichael just to see what will happen.

Bergquist’s most shining moment comes in a monologue halfway through – so totally unnecessary to the plot it doesn’t even need to be there except that it’s beautiful and perfect and simply has to exist. Its topics bounce from visiting the zoo to becoming a speed junkie, even unnervingly settling on school shootings for a while. The thing that makes it incredible (other than what happens when he takes his shirt off) is that Bergquist makes it the least absurd thing in the show, a veiled cry for meaning from a man who’s never found the purpose the world promised him he was supposed to find.

Squeezing something so poignant into a show where the laughs are both uncomfortable and unstoppable, and severed limbs go squish when they hit the floor – you’ve certainly got to hand it to this cast.

A Behanding in Spokane, the third play in The World’s Stage Theatre Company’s Martin McDonagh series, will be performed again Friday, Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 3 at 6:30 p.m., at the Milwaukee Fortress. Tickets are $15, $12 for students, and can be purchased at the door or ordered online.

Categories: Arts & Culture, Theater

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