Watching Bob Fisher's plays make me feel the way I feel when I watch David Lynch's films or read Haruki Murakami or Kobe Abe's fiction. And I mean that as the highest sort of compliment.
Pauline Kael once wrote of "Blue Velvet", "If you feel that there's very little art between you and the filmmaker's psyche, it may be because there's less than the usual amount of inhibition. Lynch doesn't censor his sexual fantasises, and the film's hypercharged erotic atmophere makes it something of a trance-out, but his humor keeps breaking through, too. His fantasies may come from his unconscious, but he recognizes them for what they are, and he's tickled by them."
I think the same is true of Bob's theater: his work is powerful because there's very little mediation between his id and what ends up on stage. When you go to see a show by his company, the Mammals, you descend into the basement and into Bob's world. You're in his unconscious, where all those fantasies come flailing around. There's a tremendous amount of pain there, and violence against women, and just plain violence. But it can also be arousing, a darkly comic turn-on.
He gives us a Grand Guignol, pulp fiction, penny dreadful world, a world of old Poverty Row B-movie film noir thrillers and Universal Horror films. If I have made a lot of cinematic references, it's because the Mammals makes a uniquely cinematic theater: there's as much Tarantino in there as there is Beckett and Brecht. It's there in the language, which has the fun, zingy poetry of a Ben Hecht. But it's in the actor's faces and bodies as well, which evoke a visceral classic cinematic physiognomy, a hard jaw or a curvy form, and extends all the the way to the lighting: the palette of "Devils Don't Forget" is black and white, almost chiaroscuro, which makes the rare strokes and dabs of color all the more vivid.
The hero of "Devils Don't Forget" is Buster, an amnesiac with blood-stained gauze still clinging to his temples. Played by Dennis Frymire, he is tormented by various gangsters, femme fatales and monsters. There is Don Hall as the well-dressed Udo, who wields a switchblade and is a sort of amalgam of those torturers who approach their work with that certain joie de vivre (think Mr. Blonde-Frank Booth-droog). There is the lissom Annie Hogan, who sure knows how to rock a clingy scarlet gown. Sara Gorsky plays the woman Buster can't remember but also can't forget. In a cold world, Sara is warmth: the heart (as the great old atheist once said of religion) of a heartless world.
Sarah Koerner tickled me as a singularly unsympathetic bartender, hacking like a consumptive and pouring the world's most begrudging cup of coffee. Gabe Garza is Dumdum, Udo's hapless muscle, evoking in size and demeanor one of the dimmer members of the Sopranos clan, and whom Udo bullies. And then there is "the Father", some kind of alien or beast with two backs (Justin Warren and Erin Orr), one half of whom pushs its other half in a wheelchair: twisted, poxy decrepitude on wheels.
Bob's is not a nihilistic vision, not at its heart. Like Buster, who tells us that his whole life could have been redeemed if he had only been able to comfort an old veteran, there's a humanity at the core of the vision, or at least a grasp to hold on to humanity. At one point Buster mimes taking something from his pocket and tells us he is holding an egg in his hand. Although we can see there is nothing there, he asks an audience member to cradle it, wills them to see it. Like Buster, Bob would like to get you to believe...I'm not sure in what, but in something. Perhaps the imagination. In a culture that tries to shut you down at every turn, the Mammals still make theater that wants to open you up.
Maybe you'll surface from "Devils Don't Forget" as you sometimes do from a particularly vivid, disquieting dream, to find--if only in the instant before relief comes flooding in and you begin to forget--that, just for a moment, you're unsure of what is real and what is not.
["Devils Don't Forget" is playing Fridays and Saturdays in February at 10:00 p.m. at Zoo Studios at 4001 N. Ravenswood Ave., Ste. B-1. For reservations: 866-593-4614 or firstname.lastname@example.org]