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Don’t be put off. Lightning strikes again for Subversive as MERCURY FUR shows ensemble acting at its finest

THE BASICS: MERCURY FUR, a 2005 play by Philip Ridley, presented by Subversive Theatre Collective as part of their “dystopian series,” directed by Mike Doben, starring Matthew B. Cullen, Zach Thomas, Lucas Colon, Helen Rose, Jeremy Catania, Zach Bellus, Justyne Harris, and Vinnie DeStefano runs through February 8, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. at the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Avenue, third floor (462-5549). Runtime: approaching 2-1/2 hours without intermission (about as long as many current Hollywood movies). Note: mature content suitable for adult (18+) audiences only.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  We meet two brothers living by their wits in a burned-out post-apocalyptic East End dystopian slum (“Where the hell are you?…Can you see the dead dog?… Step over the dead dog and turn left”). Elliot, the older brother, deals but does not use hallucinogenic “butterflies,” a drug to which his younger brother, Darren, is addicted which has caused severe memory loss. Although Elliot verbally abuses Darren (“You’ve been acting like a kitten after a twirl in the microwave all afternoon”) they might be the only family they have left and, indeed, at one point they engage in a verbal “I love you so much that….” game. In addition to selling butterflies, their biggest source of income is holding “parties” at which patrons with the cash can enact their most violent, amoral fantasies, such as the (mostly offstage) torture and murder of a boy.

Other characters slowly enter, including Naz, a teenage customer of Elliot’s who stumbles on to the party and, desperate for companionship, wants to help. Elliot is furious. The young boy who will be the victim is called the “Party Piece” – and is prepped, as requested, for the client, known as the “Party Guest.” Helping to create the fantasy with costume and make-up is the transgender Lola who is the sister of Spinx. Although only in his 20s, Spinx is the head of the gang, a position he maintains through intimidation. As Elliot reminds Darren: “Spinx has a habit of slicing people’s eyelids off when he is not a happy bunny.” Yet, Spinx tenderly looks after “The Duchess,” a blind woman in her late 30s. The title MERCURY FUR is never explained.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: While on the surface there might seem to be many reasons to skip this play (it’s long, it’s violent, the set-up is creepy as hell) there are just as many reasons to absolutely get over to The Manny Fried Playhouse, where lightning has struck again for Subversive following their first-rate SHE KILLS MONSTERS.

Mike Doben’s direction is very sure and his ensemble direction is enviable. That’s doubly impressive given that this is only the second play he’s directed, but Doben has been hanging around with some of the best practitioners of “the dark arts” – Road Less Traveled Productions – where he was Assistant Stage Manager for the Artie Award-winning productions of the extremely intense plays DISGRACED, the other-worldly and time-bending THE ILLUSION and the uber-creepy THE NETHER. (In pitching MERCURY FUR I described it as “like the NETHER but not set in cyberspace.”) I can’t imagine having a better apprenticeship for directing Subversive’s current show than those plays (and Doben does thank RLTP directors Scott Behrend, John Hurley, and Katie Mallinson), unless it was his directorial debut with Subversive’s dystopian FARENHEIT 451.

In his Director’s Note Doben writes: “By the end of this party, you may have questions, concerns, and slack jaws, but it’s my belief as a director that art should challenge and not pacify; raise more questions, instead of telling you all the answers.”

MERCURY FUR is the best fight choreography I’ve seen in a long while.

Another reason to catch this play. MERCURY FUR is the best fight choreography I’ve seen in a long while. It was the work of Shelby Converse. Even though this was her “Fight Director-ial” debut, she’s been working in that field, soaking up knowledge, for years. Punches really land, walls shake, the fights continue over time, organic and flowing, and when people fall down, it’s quite realistic. (Fight Captain is Zach Thomas)

Together with Director Doben and Fight Director Shelby Converse, Set Designer Emily Powrie has come up with a superb platform for the action, with terrific attention to creepy detail, completely re-imagining and using every inch of the Manny Fried stage in the service of this play and it was cleverly lit by Kurt Schneiderman. If you’ve grown tired of recent set designs, seeing this set is yet another reason to go. So much to look at.

If you’ve grown tired of recent set designs, seeing this set is yet another reason to go.

But the biggest reason is to enjoy a remarkable ensemble cast! It starts with the on-stage chemistry between SUNY Fredonia Freshman (yes!) Matthew B. Cullen as Elliot, who walks with a limp, and recent Fredonia grad Zach Thomas as the addled-pated younger brother, Darren. Equally impressive was Buff State grad Jeremy Catania as Lola, the transgender “costumer” for the parties. Again, always in character, always reacting to his fellow actors. A truly memorable performance.

And Zachary Bellus, who is a little older and more experienced than most of the cast, who has been simply wonderful with diverse troupes from Theatre of Youth to Buffalo United Artists to Jewish Repertory Theatre, here really calls on that experience to change the character Spinx over the course of the play. Most impressive.

And everybody else brought his or her A-game to this production. Recent Buff State grad Lucas Colon presents the goofy character “Naz” with UB sophomore Helen Rose as the “Party Piece,” Vinnie DeStefano, back from NYC to play the hyper-intense “Party Guest,” and Justyne Harris to play the blind Duchess, no easy feat, given that her character has to act as if she’s blind, sing, have a seizure, faint, and still look regal.

A disturbing and thoroughly engaging night at the theater.

UP NEXT: ECLIPSED by Danai Gurira, which on Broadway starred Lupita Nyong’o, concerning four captive wives of a Liberian warlord, up from March 6 through March 28, 2020.

TWO AFTERNOON’S AT KELLY’S by Buffalo’s Mark Humphrey, set in a South Buffalo bar in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement.

And, in June, look for the annual production featuring students from the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, which is always worth attending.

Lead image: L-R Jeremy Catania, Matthew B. Cullen, Zachary Bellus, Zach Thomas | Photo credit Lawrence Rowswell

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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