Tommy Smith’s White Hot at West of Lenin: Mean Frailties

Kimberley Sustad and Ray Tagavilla in Tommy Smith’s White Hot at West of Lenin. Courtesy of Marxiano Productions

That the Arts frequently turns to the utterly discomfiting as a source for inspiration is a given; there is plentiful evidence to support this grand generalization, from Sophocles’ dramatization of insurmountable hubris, through the medieval depictions of torture methods, the Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies, the works of Bosch and El Greco. Throughout the 20th and 21st Century, this tendency is well represented in the works from artists as varied as Lovecraft, Brecht, Buñuel, Dennis Potter, Lynch, Gaspar Noe, von Trier, etc. etc. etc. For whatever the reason, the allure of oblivion (which is, ultimately, where all such acts of nihilism lead us) is hard to resist in controlled doses.

One could argue that the Theater presents us with a particularly potent medium for this kind of work, a residual effect that is difficult to replicate in other media. The intimacy of Theater, the fact that you’re in the same room where these acts are taking place, implicates us in the proceedings. Gone is the buffer of the silver screen or the page; in the case of Visual Arts, the distance between the artist and the audience implied by the canvas (or the sculpture). Film has to get exceedingly graphic (think the rape scene in Noe’s Irreversible or the numerous murders in Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects) in order to achieve the same impact that an act of violence in a play would have. The fact that You Are There is hard to beat, thematically speaking, even if you know that what is happening on the stage is not real; it’s part of the allure.

In modern times, this aspect of the theatrical realm has been explored most famously by Neil Labute and the late Sarah Kane. Kane’s Blasted is a good example of the kind of theater we’re talking about: Performed as a one act, the play is set in a war-torn Western country and depicts numerous acts of wanton cruelty during the course of its two and a half hours in order to deliver the audience to a place where somehow gentle human grace survives–a grace that feels all the more hard-won, and therefore purer, after digesting the ugly indignities that preceded it.

It is into this theatrical tradition that we must place Tommy Smith’s White Hot, a condensed burst of theatrical malevolence produced by Marxiano Productions that’s taking place in Fremont’s West of Lenin through Saturday. Only an hour long, White Hot achieves an electric unpredictability on the strength of its production elements; specifically it is in the realm of its cast and Smith’s script that make this a production that sticks to the memory.

White Hot‘s world is not our own, but it is only separated by a couple of degrees–it is a place where the dehumanizing and narcissistic flames fanned by the social media age are that much more ingrained into our personalities. Smith’s characters are all-consumed with a longing for fulfillment, and go about searching for it everywhere but internally. All they know about their selves is that whatever they can provide on their own is not enough, it’s fleeting, because the only gratification they know comes from external sources.

Lil (Kimberley Sustad) used to get fulfillment from her husband Bri; Bri (Braden Abraham, in the role originally intended to be played by Smith), in the meantime, enjoyed Lil’s attention because it was derived from his success as a writer, but that faded when he discovered he gets the same juice from temporary sexual conquests and finding ever increasing success as a dramatist. Lil’s sister, who goes by Sis (Hannah Victoria Franklin), and Grig (Ray Tagavilla) are both perfectly satisfied with the short-lived rewards to be found in a hedonistic approach to life; but the pitfalls to this approach aren’t as easily avoided: Sis gives in to the pleasure with possibly the worst person she could. Grig, meanwhile, thrives on fulfilling the desire of others — going so far as to adopt strange personas and providing whatever the other wants in order to do so — but is not around to witness the repercussions of his actions, he thrives by providing the momentary reward and then he’s gone.

Of these, perhaps it is Lil who is in need of salvation the most. Pregnant with Bri’s child, the extent to which her needs are negated by others, and the degree to which she sublimates the same, is extreme. In effect, she is unable to feel, and the length she goes to overcome this inability provides the play’s overwhelming current and sets up the climactic moment at the end. The effect of that climax is a powerfully dark release leavened by the blunt imagery of the final tableau.

Not mentioned in the above description is the amount of humor one finds amid the bleakness, which is to do Smith’s work an injustice, because these characters would be rendered completely intolerable and alien without it. One needs to be able to laugh at their myopic tendencies, at just how short of humanity their interactions are. If Sustad’s Lil is where our sympathies lie, then it’s Franklin’s magnetic turn as Sis that serves as the vehicle for this humor; the brusqueness with which Sis communicates her worldview, her wants, needs, the ease with which she achieves her goals go a long way toward illuminating how emotionally stunted these characters are.

Abraham’s direction further underlines this last quality; the characters speak in a clipped and terse manner, so that when other characters project an emotion upon each other, the audience is given the room to come up with their own interpretation of what’s happening, all the while the events lead us to that final image, making it inescapable given the way these events unfold. In the end, there is an ugly sort of fulfillment: it’s the only one that’s available to these characters.

Smith’s moral (and there generally is one in the works your correspondent has described above, hard as they might be to discern immediately; it’s what makes them redeeming) is hidden within the harshness, but once it’s found it is rewarding in its simple humanity. Its sentiment would be considered laughable if it were arrived at through any other means.

Simply put, by virtue of its relentless tension, the production at West of Lenin makes the sentiment evident, though the fullness of that sentiment is only arrived at after the tension has left the viewer–to be found only in the aftermath of the evening.

Thursday through Saturday at 8:00p.m.; an additional performance has been added on Wednesday February 8th at 8:00p.m. // West Of Lenin, 203 North 36th Street // $18