Chris Sullivan’s new one-man show Mark The Encounter is a creepy, dark, funny little thing, all of which I liked enormously. Its very short run concluded this past weekend, but hopefully it will return to a local stage again soon.
In a way, it seems unfair to “review” this production because not only is it a new work in development under the umbrella of Open Eye Figure Theatre’s Open Studio program, it’s also very much a homecoming event for Sullivan. Chris Sullivan lived and worked in Minneapolis for many years before moving to Chicago. On first moving to Minneapolis, Open Eye’s artistic director Michael Sommers met and began working with Sullivan and Michelle Kinney. The three toured their puppet productions to New York, LA and Chicago. Sullivan shifted his artistic emphasis for ten years into animated and experimental films. But recently he returned to the stage to create Mark The Encounter, and contacted Open Eye’s producing director Susan Haas about bringing the production to Minneapolis. Hence, this weekend’s reunion of Sullivan with former friends, audience members and collaborators—all of whom were laughing heartily throughout the evening. I’d be more reserved about offering an opinion of Mark The Encounter for any of the reasons above, but since I liked it so much, I wanted to help spread the kudos as loudly as I could.
Mark The Encounter is a slice of life from an alternate universe very like our own, consisting of a daisy chain of two-person relationships that build and reflect back on one another in peculiar ways. There’s also a healthy dose of Hamlet references sprinkled throughout, including the title (Act II, Scene 2—yeah, I looked it up, shoot me), but you don’t need to know your Shakespeare to enjoy the play. That’s just an added bonus for theater geeks. While the network of characters that cross the stage at first seem as if they might be completely random, the connections—literal and thematic—quickly begin to pile up. The fact that at times it all seems so casually thrown together just makes it that much more impressive when the knots all tighten. An added bonus is these characters have no filter on what they say. They say things that may never enter your mind because you’d never dream of saying them in the first place. Inappropriate doesn’t begin to cover it, which of course gives it the thrill and humor of the forbidden. Sullivan’s way with language in general is so nimble that when you’re not laughing, you’re appreciating the poetry of it all.
In the program, Haas describes Sullivan and his work as “strange, excessive, hurtful yet generous” and that’s as good a thumbnail sketch as anyone is likely to come up with. The power dynamics in all the relationships depicted are largely parasitic. There’s a whole lot of neediness going on here. The two opening sequences find an unseen woman being addressed first by a surgeon, then by a mortician, both of whom want to leech off of her husband’s body for their own purposes. The surgeon emotionally strong-arms the woman into turning her brain-dead husband into an organ donor. The mortician depicts cremation as so horrific that he compels her to consider an elaborate funeral with a fully embalmed body instead (and please be sure not to skimp on the tombstone—otherwise how are we to find the gravesite and properly bury him?). Both men are so hilariously inappropriate and relentless in the ways they badger the poor woman into doing what they want that if you don’t laugh, your head might explode. Just when you think they can’t say anything worse, they find something to top it.
An ongoing back-and-forth occurs between a female therapist and her manipulative patient—both mostly in human form, but now and again replaced by puppets, and even videotape. We are introduced to the patient as he battles his doctor’s answering machine—repeatedly cut off, he keeps calling back until he’s rattled off his full list of woes. This leads to him requesting the therapist read a eulogy he wrote for his brother’s funeral but can’t bring himself to recite aloud at the service. The therapist uses the occasion to one-up the man and also advertise her services with a eulogy of her own after reading his. Later, threats lead to an awkward dinner.
Once or twice, a fantasy king appears, dogged by treacherous children. Toss a werewolf on the pile for good measure. Elsewhere, another doctor puts a patient through a variety of tests upon the discovery of an unusual diagnosis—a homunculus named Pedro is living inside him. The series of elaborate non-cures recommended gets progressively more outrageous and horrible. In the end, this mutant, undigested bit of human soul also gets the puppet treatment, which makes for the highpoint of creepy in a very creepy evening. Yet for all the weird and horrible things said and done, you can’t help laughing at it all. That tricky balancing act of hitting the tone just right, more than anything, is the reason I enjoyed Mark The Encounter so thoroughly. Anything that can screw with my mental equilibrium that skillfully was well-worth the trip.
Five stars: Very Highly Recommended