Women on top in Ballagan’s “Death, Sex: Election Season”

Balagan presents its Death, Sex: Election Season series whenever a lull in their calendar frees up the space, usually a few times a year. The main purpose of the series is to showcase new local playwrights, emphasizing the writing by using the same directors (Shawn Belyea and Jake Groshong) and the same crew and group of actors. It is an intentionally mixed bag, although even the works in progress are not without their punchlines.

The first two plays start off the evening with clever jabs at partisan politics and evil dictatorial government and depictions of republicans and big-brother authoritarian figures as men with heavy southern drawls. Nik Doner’s Blood in the Water has republicans as mindless flesh-eating zombies facing off with democrats as blood-sucking socialist vampires, who manage to come together to create the unthinkable: a zombie-vampire hybrid or “a third party!”

Ben McFadden’s ReCount imagines a dystopian world in which society and politics have remained stagnant from an inability to resolve the Bush-Gore election. McFadden makes fun of science fiction adventure tropes—the world’s future resting on the shoulders of the everyman, the unfailing power of love to turn a robot human, plot reversal upon plot reversal. The ambitiousness of these first two plays leads them to struggle for a balance between clever conceit and a weightiness they don’t manage to earn within their brief, 10-minute time frame.

Kellen Conway Blanchard’s Amphrite feels like the last scene of a quirky, apocalyptic sci-fi film from the 1980s. Three employees of fast food chain Wiener World are trapped waiting for a mutant sea-creature invasion that has already killed their manager. The dialogue between the three awkward and quickly endearing characters is both ridiculous and realistic of the petty arguments that emerge in times of crisis—which eventually arrives with the eerie echoing return of their dead manager, giant spider crab legs reaching for the three friends through large slats on the stage wall.

One of the evening’s standouts is Sex Life, in which Wayne Rawley gives a 10-minute interaction between two characters the impact of a full-length play. A man (Curtis Eastwood) and woman (Colleen Robertson) return to her apartment after meeting in a bar in what seems to be a prelude to casual sex. But a series of character revelations pinpoint the complicated nature of the human body’s ability to desire, renew and decay. Eastwood and Robertson’s dramatic character shifts show ease and emotional honesty.  

In Matt Smith’s Mitt Romney Meets the Sphinx, a childish Romney (Eastwood)’s sexual abilities seem to summarize his campaign: “It takes me a little while to get hard but if you bear with me I think you’ll like this.” The conceit of the play is that every election year the republican candidate’s mettle is tested by a sphinx (a commanding and seductive Allison Strickland) who either deems them worthy and consecrates their candidature—or kills them. It’s a fantasy that should become a reality.    

Lenore Bensinger’s Slim Pickings has two friends (played by Ahren Buhmann and Ben McFadden with the energy of 11-year-old boy scouts) forced into performing klezmer music (misinterpreted by rifle-toting, denim-clad Jason M. Harber as “patriotic tunes”) for the wedding of an elderly libertarian general (a perfectly squinty and lascivious Mark Fullerton). The show’s sheer ridiculousness—it features a dildo belt and a founding rabbinical father dance number Mel Brooks might have conceived—makes up for moments of general confusion.

Emily Conbere’s The Seeping, a high school student government election becomes a sinister evocation of the war on women, with boys plotting personal glory in the men’s room while women bleed to death in wait. The show begins with video ad campaigns and then verges on performance art, as Allison Standley delivers a final monologue with red yarn unspooling and tangling around her. Jesse Lee Keeter’s Election seems on its way to becoming a Russian spy drama but remains trapped in spoof territory, which may be due in part to the inherent hilarity of false russian accents, however impressive they may be, and Strickland’s dramatic entrance as a high-strung fur-clad politician’s wife.

The evening’s grand finale, Eric Lane Barnes’ D.S.R. finds its genius in its direct literal interpretation of the series’ title. A professor delivers his game-changing theory to a group of political strategists: the keys to presidential popularity are death and sex, solving the mystery of the hard-on you get every time you hear Ronald Reagan’s name. Dead sexy Reagan battles dead sexy FDR, and a sexy battalion of female spies reveals themselves the dead-sexiest of all. Except, perhaps, for Sarah Palin (an alarmingly accurate Standley).

It’s already too late to catch this particular installment of Death, Sex, but dead sexy Balagan is sure to rise again, and drama strategists can only predict what the next series will bring.

Photography by Andrea Huysing.