by Ron Cohen · November 13, 2013
Indie Artists on New Plays #21 Ron Cohen looks at The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters continuing at Playwrights Horizons until December 1
In the last of the 20 scenes (plus a prologue) that make up Marlane Meyer’s The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters, two former lovers after several years of separation meet at a bus station. The man, wiser as well as older after a term in prison, vacillates about the possibility of a future for the couple and contemplates the “secret world in marriage that nobody warns you about. A hidden world of feelings that can be violated, suddenly, in ways you don’t expect.” It‘s a lovely, articulate and perceptive monologue, rendered feelingly by Rob Campbell as the ex-convict Calvin, and it draws an equally arresting reaction from his one-time lover, Aubrey, a doctor, who has come to meet him and “give him a lift.” Laura Heisler plays the doctor with a genuine sentiment that matches Campbell, and the scene is one of those transcendent moments you hope for as a theatergoer, when you’re pulled out of yourself and into the lives of characters on stage.
The problem, however, is whether the scene is worth sitting through all the flagrant silliness that precedes it. Until then, this Patron Saint plays like a parody of a trailer-park trash soap opera, overloaded with scatology, screaming folks and incredulous plot lines. Much of it revolves around the tenuous love affair between Calvin, a dim-witted soul who in the prologue has just murdered his wife, and Aubrey, who is drawn to worshipping her make-believe saint, Martyrbride, “the patron saint of spinsters, childhood infirmity and sea monsters,.“ when she isn’t giving gynecological examinations. Among the 15 or so other characters, there are Jack, Calvin’s half-brother who’s suspected of murdering his wife; Helen, the violent and drunken mother of Jack and Calvin; Canadian Bill, Calvin’s close pal who aspires to be a private detective; and Mrs. Carlsen, Aubrey’s solicitous landlady who has a brother, Psychic Tom, who speaks in an unreal high-pitched voice, and an extremely loud-mouthed daughter, Molly.
In addition to Campbell and Heisler, the cast includes Candy Buckley, Haynes Thigpen, Danny Wolohan and Jacqueline Wright. Under Lisa Petersen’s knowing direction, they give their all with exaggerated, uninhibited performances in an attempt to fulfill Meyer’s vision of a fantastical, mad, mad world filled with brutal people and deeds that even seem to confound the animals in the forest that surround their rural town. When they aren’t portraying humans, the actors don animal masks and silently observe the human goings-on. Rachel Hauk’s unit set, dotted with animal taxidermy, foreboding foliage and ramshackle structures, along with Russell H. Champs’ lighting, Paloma Young’s costumes and Darron L. West’s sound design also contribute tellingly to this surreal milieu.
Meyer writes some funny lines. I particularly enjoyed the reference to Popeye, when Calvin in dead-pan style observes, “He has good ideas about nutrition.” But overall, her script is so cluttered and deliberately ugly that I often felt more violated than connected -- except, of course, for the last scene, when things calm down and we can actually take in -- and want to take in -- what her people are saying. For the most part, Meyer seems determined to prove that even in this day of cable TV, pornographic websites and foul-mouthed movies, a stage play can still offend an audience.