I have often despaired of trying to express unequivocal enthusiasm for theatre that is disturbing, harrowing, intrusive, and yet ferocious and brave. Theatre often grapples with and articulates a world that (beneath the surface) is terrifying and grotesque. So when Kitchen Dog Theater (God bless them) engages with contradictory needs between our raw humanity and what culture demands, I find the experience exhilarating, overwhelming, flamboyant and everything that fierce, defiant, contemporary theatre must be. There will (of course) always be need for pleasure-driven, blissfully ridiculous comedy, but certainly also enjoyment in even the bleakest of theatrical narratives. Great theatre has an intuitive feel for turning emotion and struggle into extravagant, spectacular, though precise, imagery and sacrament. Sometimes it helps to explore the frantic and abysmal. It makes the unknown less daunting.
Eva, a sad, lonely, middle-aged (but never pathetic) merchant who loves to paint, helps a homeless guy by letting him carry her groceries. When he refuses remuneration, she hastily tries to get rid of him, even when he explains there are men outside, waiting to kill him. “Not my problem,” she replies, without seeming unkind. But somehow the guy turns it around, rather quickly, and she offers him food and temporary refuge. His actual name is Roberto, but he prefers the nickname his cronies gave him: “The Hake”. (A hake is a vicious reptile that is something like a cross between a piranha and a cottonmouth.) While humbly eating soup, he sets a pattern: slipping in degradation, disguised as concern.
When she returns from her store the next day, she discovers he’s created truly impressive fancies and practical basketry from her Sunday paper, a commodity usually read and discarded quickly. Paper Flowers is rich with a metaphor, top to bottom. There is something disarming about this aspect of his personality. He’s charismatic and subdued, but even before we see his behavior in her absence, something is unmistakably off about him. Unsavory. As she begins to offer more tender feelings, incidents that should alarm her, fail to do so. When she discovers Goldie (her canary) is not actually missing, because “Hake” killed her, she is flabbergasted. And yet she doesn’t kick him out. Running throughout this surreal, troubling courtship is the vague suggestion that Eva’s charity is fueled by sexual desire. Possibly. But often it works out that women give sex for love, and men, love for sex. But then, if this snake has such contempt for Eva’s supposed “neediness,” no one’s forcing him to participate.
Days after I watched Paper Flowers, I realized how utterly it had gotten under my skin. It is subversive and cunning, dragging us into a cluster of passions in a flagrant, chaotic, implacable way. The connection between Eva and Hake. Is it about romance, libido, empathy, alms-giving, rage, pride? The bread of shame? Hake seems to keep mistaking sympathy for pity. But if Eva (in Hake’s view) could never comprehend his situation, than I suppose the bourgeois are incapable of anything but pity. Subsequently, Hake cannot accept anything offered out of love (genuine or not). He must take it by force. He makes a speech at the end, that amounts to this. We get so lost in what the other needs us to be, that we lose our identity. There is probably something to that.
Kitchen Dog Theater presents Paper Flowers playing February 17th – March 11th, 2017. 2600 North Stemmons Freeway, # 180, Dallas, Texas 75207. 214-953-1055. www.kitchendogtheater.org