by Erin Layton · October 10, 2013
Breaking up with someone is a tough business especially after you’ve spent an entire decade together of shared experiences, mutual friendships and deep intimate bonding. Sad also to consider that the only proof left behind in the severed relationship’s wake are a few vinyl records, a Tupperware container of archived love notes and an unclaimed loofah in the shower.
At the top of Paul Cameron Hardy’s new play, feeling., produced by the Glass Bandits Theater Company, the main character Emma (Meredith Burns) is heartbroken. Her long-term boyfriend, Alex (Ben Mehl) is tired of feeling “indifferent” and he swiftly exits, bags packed, leaving her and their newly rented apartment in the dust. She is alone in an empty room in a fetal position on the floor. For days, she isolates herself from friends, family and work and sleeps or listens to really bad music for hours on end. Her younger, effusively positive brother, Oliver (Carl Holder) attempts to “save the day” with his energetic spirit and Winnie the Pooh books but nothing can “save” Emma from her funk and she continues to seep herself in the remnants of recycled memories milling about the apartment. But then Emma’s life takes a turn for the better - or worse. She finds a book on famed serial killer and cannibalist, Jeffrey Dahmer. At first, the book provides a much needed relief from her misery spiral but soon she becomes fixated with Dahmer’s life and criminal history.
And he, Dahmer (Luke Robertson) does physically enter Emma’s life although not really - and not really as himself. He is the absurd manifestation of all that she’s read and understood and is so desperate to cling onto. He’s also the complete opposite of a threat. He’s charming and smart with an insanely delightful and dry sense of humor. Even when he goes into graphic and disturbing detail about his victims and why or how he would mutilate them, you can’t help but giggle at his droll delivery and his unsuccessful attempts at love. He’s the type of character you’d want to drown sorrows with over cans of cheap beer – someone to confide in, someone who won’t judge you because they’re so much worse off and someone who understands the need for vengeance. Emma would never hack her ex-boyfriend to death but she’d certainly like to punch him hard in the face.
Unfortunately though, spending too much time with a serial killer takes its toll and Emma’s sanity starts to decline like a slow burn – triggered by the breakup, activated by late night conversations with an imaginary friend, more alcohol, missed work assignments and deadlines – she’s unapologetically late on grading papers and on her doctoral thesis - and accidental blowups. At one point she acts upon violent impulses with a nervous student (brilliantly played by Quinn Meyers) that reflect her newfound madness.
When the doors are closed shut at The New Ohio Theatre, an ideal venue for feeling.’s world, we are in the darkened cell of Emma’s mind and only a select few, including the audience, have visitation rights. Under the direction of Eddie Prunoske, and an impeccably cast ensemble, feeling. successfully straddles states of hyperrealism and abstraction. The long drawn out moments of Emma’s despair shortly following her breakup with Alex are especially devastating and uncomfortable to sit through but incredibly honest in their deliberation. And when Dahmer arrives, we cross over into the subconscious mind and are fully present and engaged there.
As Emma, Burns expertly tackles her sense of self-righteousness and animosity. She captivates us with each moment of her fascination with Dahmer as we track her inevitable plight. Holder as Oliver captures our hearts with his unabashed compassion and concern toward his tormented sibling even after she flings hurtful words at him. And Robertson is disturbingly lovable as the famed serial killer. Although we know what he’s capable of, Robertson’s portrayal convinces us that he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Equally honest and supportive performances are also given by Meyers, Mehl and Donna Haley as Janet, Emma’s graduate school advisor.
Everything is purposeful in this Glass Bandits production from the deliciously ambiguous sound cues designed by Erik T. Lawson underlying each scene transition - an oncoming flood or crunching of human bones - to Josh Smith’s lighting and set design, especially the way light filters in through the blinds lining the back wall of Emma’s apartment. The collaboration of all of these elements force us to lose our grip on reality, slipping deeper into a subconscious slumber.
I was initially reluctant to sit through a 90 minute play about Jeffrey Dahmer without an intermission but I felt so engaged and warmed to Hardy's characters that I found myself clinging to their every word, remaining close behind in the shadows of the prison cell walls.