Penetrator is Rude Guerrilla Theatre Co.’s grotesque yet oddly accessible tale of perversion and repression. At the center are two roommates and their childhood friend, a multiple-personality case who has discovered a secret militant group called the Penetrators. The group’s mission: to create mass panic through a campaign of sexual terror.

Anthony Nielson’s script is crude, sharp and disturbing. In this West Coast premiere, it’s also hysterically funny and probing, following the roommates out of the predictable comforts of coffee, crank and jerk-off mags and into the marginal world of Pynchonesque underground movements.

Director Jay Michael Fraley convincingly captures the sordid natures of these men. Steven Parker seems is like a Satanic smoke machine, pumping out a kind of psychological vertigo and darkness as Woody, the demented ex-soldier who spreads alarm about the approach of the Penetrators.

Penetrator at Rude Guerrilla Theater Co., 200 N. Broadway. Santa Ana (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; also Thursday, Dec. 11, 8 p.m. Through Dec. 14. $12-$15.
Friday, November 21, 2003

With friends like these ...
Rude Guerrilla's 'Penetrator' walks the razor's edge between laughs and nihilism.

Special to the Register

What, exactly, determines a friendship? Is it common interests, shared give and take, or merely the perception of loyalty, however misguided that perception?

"Penetrator" examines all of these factors, showing that the lines between them can be as blurred as those between dark comedy and drama, of which Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson's play is both. Take a look at Rude Guerrilla Theater Company's West Coast premiere of the 1993 play, which takes place - more or less - in real time and moves rapidly from its lightning-quick opening scene to its conclusion in just over 75 minutes.

It's Neilson's keen ability to tap our recognition of seemingly small moments in life, between friends, that causes this Empire Theater staging, well-cast and strongly directed by Jay Michael Fraley, to hit both comedic and dramatic nerve endings. You'll be roaring with laughter one moment, gripping your armrest in suspense the next - and, most likely, marveling at a script that teeters between evoking explosive laughter and the feeling that we exist in a nihilistic universe.

The set-up couldn't be more basic: A couple of stoner roommates in Los Angeles hang out on a typical, do-nothing, lie-about-guzzle-beer-and- get-high evening, with a childhood friend, unseen for several years, on his way for an unexpected visit.

The stoners are Max (Tim Giblin) and Alan (Max DeAnda). Bitter over past failings with women, Max gratifies himself with pornographic videos and literature. Though Alan finds it easier to relate to women, he, like Max, has no steady girlfriend.

The visitor is Woody (Steven Parker), pals with Max since grade school. Max was always the "brains" of the duo, and Woody the "brawn." The two lost contact when Max enrolled in college and Woody joined the military. Woody's arrival triggers unresolved issues between the three, set off by Woody's contention that he's been violated by the military, by hostile agents he labels "penetrators." "They stick things up you," he tells his disbelieving buddies, "all kinds of things. They've been following me. They wanted me to join them - but now, they want me dead."

Laid-back Max takes in stride Woody's high-strung rants and bizarre, disconnected conversational leaps; the more-empathetic Alan can see that "something has happened" to Woody. Whether it's what Woody claims - assault by those he has branded penetrators - or something else is irrelevant. Woody's experiences dredge up long-buried wounds, revealing the difference between his friendship with Max and Max's with Alan.

Neilson's subtle writing does the trick here, and his penetrating script is fully realized through Fraley's direction of a three-man cast fully capable of walking the razor's edge between comedy and drama.

First staged in Edinburgh, Scotland, "Penetrator" requires skillful stagecraft despite its deceptively simple framework. Fraley's apartment set is, thanks to Max, a disheveled pad strewn with ashtrays and cigarette packs, playing cards and dirty magazines, its back wall adorned with glam photos of J. Lo, Britney Spears, Marilyn Monroe and assorted porn models. In the three brief scenes depicting an isolated Woody, Fraley's sound design works with Dave Barton's lighting scheme to put us inside the character's tormented head: Deep male voices are slowed down and garbled, as Parker is seen in the glare of a hellish red light.

Anyone familiar with Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film, "Full Metal Jacket," will see instant parallels between Woody and the hapless grunt portrayed by Vincent D'Onofrio, known disparagingly as "Private Pyle." Like Kubrick's character, Woody has been taken by the military and become dehumanized, paranoid and psychotic - the perfect killing machine. As such, he's the dreadful engine that drives "Penetrator."

With his slow, deliberate moves and skull-like, predatory stare, Parker taps reservoirs of intensity rarely seen in such intimate theatrical confines. Fraley plays Woody's sudden, violent mood swings both for laughs and to spook us - when Woody works himself up into a state, you can see the veins popping out on Parker's forehead. Yet both director and actor take care not to turn the character into a freak show: This is a human being - albeit not a very bright one - to be pitied for having been violated by the system. That he seeks revenge is wholly credible, even if it's against the wrong targets.

Fraley's staging pleasingly uses Giblin and DeAnda's more low-key characterizations to counterbalance Parker's volatile presence. With his thick glasses and the word "truth" tatooed on his left arm, Giblin's Max is a comically self-absorbed, myopic loadie. DeAnda plays the less-clearly defined Alan as capable of seeing the lines that distinguish truth - and blurring those lines when it suits him.

The relative innocence of "Three's Company," "Starsky & Hutch" and other '70s network television shows defines all three characters. Grade- schoolers at the time, their connections were so elemental as to continue to define them to this day. Neilson shows us that none of these young men ever really grew up; Fraley and company try - and succeed - in showing us why.

'Penetrator' brutal in its intensity

The Anthony Neilson play "Penetrator" takes an unblinking look at brutality in modern society, from disrespect toward the opposite sex to sadism on the battlefield. But by the time that one character has pinned another to the floor and is menacing him with a long, ugly knife, the audience realizes that it too is being brutalized.

Neilson, a Scottish writer, is known for his in-your-face style, and the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company has a well-documented penchant for provocative material. This time, though, the troupe has been foolhardy.

The story begins with a voice-over describing a porn-magazine sex fantasy, then catches Max (Tim Giblin) in the midst of a very private act. When he turns
around, the audience gets an embarrassingly long look at his lower anatomy.

A noise at the door announces the return of Max's roommate, Alan (Marcus DeAnda). (Director-set designer Jay Michael Fraley renders their L.A. digs as a black hole of shabbiness and filth.) Bored and disagreeable, Max tries to pick a fight with the more sensitive Alan while ranting about various topics, especially women and ingesting a daunting variety of mind-altering substances.

A playful camaraderie keeps trying to reassert itself, but worse trouble is on the way as Max's old buddy Woody (Steven Parker) pays an unannounced visit, his Marine fatigues ominously covered with blood.

There's no intermission and no unobtrusive way to exit the small theater midperformance, so there's no escaping what happens next. Vividly executed, these events demonstrate how hatred warps the minds of victimizer and victim alike, while hinting at humankind's blundering, sometimes hurtful attempts to find affection. But mostly, the production wallows in its ability to make the audience uncomfortable and that's no way to treat ticket-buyers.

--Daryl H. Miller


 reviewed by  mark jonas


At t2k, we get all kinds of notices for holiday shows, most tender and  mild: Santa sketches, Scrooge does a handstand, sing along with the bouncing ball, that sort of thing. But not our thing.

            Then we saw a postcard: an X-ray, someone had shoved a bottle up someone's ass. Here was the holiday theater we had been looking for: just a good, aggressive play, no desperate "holiday cheer."

            If you want an alternative to the sweet, sentimental molasses of holiday theater, see "Penetrator". Go to Rude Guerrilla Theater Company in Santa Ana, California, which is throwing Anthony Nielson's kick-ass dramedy at Orange County.

                  "Penetrator" is about guy culture, and the plight of straight men in deep self-denial -- a situation good for laughs, and ripe for tragedy. At the  start, a haunted man (Steven Parker) on a highway tries to hitch a ride, listening to a memory of hardcore pornography -- the usual rape story, reimagined into a lie of pleasure. Seconds later, we see Max (Tim Giblin) jerking off to the same story in his shit apartment. We watch him slack and waste time; we can see his only friends are dope and masturbation.

            Well, maybe he does have one good buddy: his roommate Alan (Marcus DeAnda). They get high and talk about TV and adolescent preoccupations, and engage in latent homosexual behavior. They're a couple, honestly. They just don't know it.

                  Suddenly, the haunted guy shows up at the door: his name's Woody, and he's      Max's childhood friend. Some friend: he hears voices in his head, he has someone else's blood on his clothes, and he keeps talking about a "dark room" in the Army where he was held captive and men tried to rape him.

            These very men, the "penetrators," are after him right now.

            Alan wants to call the cops, but Max calls for understanding. Woody is his      lifelong friend; he wouldn't hurt anyone. Suddenly, Woody pulls out a14-inch knife.

            What should Max and Alan do? Will they die in some kind of bloodbath?

            No, no. For thankfully, "Penetrator" is not as inevitable as its title might indicate. The crux of the story isn't violence, but friendship. As the play moves along, we have to decide: is Woody telling the truth? Are men from a secret Army unit hunting him? Was he raped and tortured? Is he the monster he seems? Or is he playing a game in search of a certain tenderness he lost as a child -- a mind game with a childhood friend for whom he has unrequited love? How intimate have these men been? How intimate will they need to be with each other, to save each other?

            The script's unsettling drama is marbled with sharp comedy, and Jay Michael Fraley's efficient, actor-centered direction allows us to discover two fresh talents. Marcus DeAnda is unknown to me; he belongs to something called the Meta Theater Company in L.A. Tim Giblin, according to the program, studied painting in New York and owned a steel fabrication shop in Brooklyn. Both are comfortable in roles that would make many actors squeamish, both are completely at home in this play, and hopefully they will be seen at this theater again.

In the versatile Steven Parker (an actor who has excelled in several Rude Guerrilla shows), Fraley has found the right Woody. Parker handles the character's ADD, mania, and delusions with an exciting randomness and  impulsiveness, and believe it or not, a hint of grace -- as if Woody has found strange peace in madness.

            If you look at the listings and bemoan all the holiday theater, have an adventure. See "Penetrator", maybe even with someone you love.



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