There’s a certain kind of woman who’s powerfully attracted to guns and the bad boys who like to play with them. They have a strange romance to them, these women — iconic, brutal, and intensely cinematic as they are so often portrayed. Think of Bonnie Parker posing for the camera with her sawed-off shotgun, Sissy Spacek as the whey-faced and willing accomplice Caril Ann Fugate in Badlands, and the bullet-spraying Mallory Knox in Quentin Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers.
Riddled, a new immersive play created and performed by Marya Sea Kaminski, seems aimed at identifying such women right from the outset, when the audience is segregated into small groups and led into the theater. Before reaching the seating area, each group is shut in a bright white room, where they confront a blank-faced man in shirt sleeves and a tie, standing behind a wooden table that is bare except for a wicked looking rifle.
Without saying a word, the man picks up the rifle and offers it to the group. Will someone reach out and take it? If so, what will happen? Once this silently posed question is answered, the man opens the door to the main theater and allows the group into a down-at-heels roadhouse liberally stocked with cans of Pabst. The stage is littered with musical instruments and backed by the tail-end of an RV dotted with bullet holes.
Though the title of the play is evocative, both of bullets and secrets, the piece might just as well have been called “Doomsday Preppers: The Next Generation.” Framed by intense rock songs performed by a five-piece band, Kaminski’s 90-minute monologue recounts a childhood spent under the trigger finger of a father obsessed by the notion that the apocalypse is on its way and those who aren’t adequately armed will perish in the Mad Max dystopia to come.
“We weren’t supposed to talk about it,” Kaminski confides in the audience, which is graced with an unwelcome guest, the stony-featured man from the white room, now sans rifle but armed with knowledge of the past that is far more dangerous than a hail of bullets.
Looking and singing like a trashy composite of Debbie Harry and Courtney Love, Kaminski’s unnamed character has been profoundly damaged by her father’s paranoia. His Saturday morning shooting lessons turned her into a gun-loving woman desperate to find an enabling bad boy and take off on a cross-country crime spree.
She held her first gun at the age of two. “I’m all OshKosh B'Gosh, gripping the barrel, smiling with all my teeth,” she fondly recalls. She stole a book about Bonnie and Clyde from the library in elementary school and repeatedly recites whole passages of dialogue, perhaps imaginary, that the legendary couple exchanged. She, too, wants to be a bank robber who wears a skirt.
But as her father’s prepper hobby devolves into outright abuse, she must choose between the equally unappealing fates of becoming either a criminal or a victim. She fanatically studies the black and white photos of Bonnie and Clyde. She watches Natural Born Killers over and over in her local movie theater. She plots her father’s murder. And he dies. Did she kill him? She is tantalizingly vague. Finally free, she finds that she is also lost. So she sets off on a cross-country journey in search of her criminal soul mate. “I keep my pop’s gun under the front seat,” she says.
The songs sung by Kaminski and performed by the band Landlord’s Daughter are filled with guns and violence, self-hatred and a longing to become legendary. Sean Michael Robinson and Kaminski’s musical programming swings from a none-too-innocent rendition of “Que Sera, Sera” to the haunting Cowboy Junkies version of “Sweet Jane” to Patti Smith’s hard-edged take on “Gloria.” As the emotional voice of the play, the songs whisper the unspeakable anger locked inside Kaminski’s character as often as they shriek.
Under the direction of Braden Abraham, Kaminski presents the audience with a fully realized character that, while filled with hate and the most violent of tendencies, is also sweet and sympathetic. One moment she is snarling and shooting out street lights, her narrowed eyes sweeping the audience as if searching for her next target. In the next breath, she is casting a charming and guileless smile at her listeners, as if begging for their patience. She is a profoundly lonely, haunted woman with only ghosts of the past for company.
Riddled asks dark, difficult questions. It offers a stark yet startlingly nuanced glimpse into the life of a woman who can only sum herself up as “a dirty blond dog killer,” but ultimately it’s a piece designed to provoke the kind of soul-searching that separates great theater from the merely entertaining. How many lost Bonnies are out there, deludedly searching for a Clyde to make them feel powerful? What would it take to turn any one of us into her?
And what does it say about the woman (me) who obligingly reached out to grab the rifle before the play had even started?
If you go: Riddled is on stage at Hugo House through June 23. $15-$20. For more information, visit www.hugohouse.org.