Slipstream’s “Love is Strange” is dark…dark…dark
FERNDALE, Mich. – Critics who saw a previous production of Sean Paraventi’s Love is Strange – now being staged by Slipstream Theatre Initiative – consistently noted that “it’s not for the squeamish.”
Color me squeamish, then. I’ll confess, I avoid horror movies because I have intense, visceral responses to depictions of violence and cruelty, especially when the victims are young women/girls. So, perhaps I’m not the “right” audience for Love is Strange; regardless, I tried going into Slipstream’s opening night performance with an open mind.
The play, directed by Bailey Boudreau, is set in the shabby home of a trucker named Carl (Ryan Ernst), who lives with 15 year old Megan (Grace Joliffe), a runaway he kidnapped from a truck stop when she was 12. Carl keeps Megan on a short leash, imprisoning her in a small closet – where she spent her first years with him – when she steps out of line, and giving her more freedoms when she proves herself worthy of his trust.
Megan suffers from Stockholm syndrome, playing house lovingly with her captor (when she’s not closeted), as if they’re a frisky young couple. But the audience soon learns that the pair shares an even darker, more violent connection, making them a kind of weirdly domesticated Bonnie and Clyde.
And that’s as good a place as any to start a discussion about Love is Strange. The 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” got a lot of heat for its graphic violence, and its sympathetic portrayal of two killers. However, the violence served a purpose: it wouldn’t let you forget the brutal murders the duo committed, even as you saw the couple in more human, vulnerable moments. The film explored why and how the public fell in love with them, despite their terrible crimes, and put viewers to the same test.
Though Love is Strange also shows a notorious couple’s violent acts alongside their banal interactions – Megan nonchalantly enters the stage at one point wearing a blood-soaked apron – no clear, larger purpose undergirds this sensational, disturbing tale. Megan is a damaged, abused child desperate to slake her thirst for power, even if that means preying on other powerless and vulnerable girls; and Carl seems little more than a morally blank, controlling, insecure man (with a flimsy, self-consciously labored backstory) who happily accepts the “love” of his hostage. The crimes the pair commit together are gruesome, and though you wonder, throughout Paraventi’s (not fleet) 90 minute show, where all this is leading, there’s seemingly little substance beyond this basic level of suspense.
There’s also no one to root for or connect to until a third character, Patrice (Tiaja Sabrie), shifts the play’s energy and provides a small sliver of breathing room. Sabrie gives the most complete, satisfying performance of the production, playing a scared, wide-eyed woman with such focused commitment that it’s genuinely hard to watch her repeatedly claw at survival.
Slipstream likes to play with immersive theater, and Love is Strange is no exception. Since the play’s action is set in a dumpy apartment, with tacky wall paneling and the requisite left-on-the-curb furniture pieces (including a bean bag chair), the audience is asked to find a seat on one of several old futons, couches, love seats, and recliners set up in the performance space. Sabrie designed the show’s costumes, dressing Carl and Megan in worn, castoff clothes that, like the characters themselves, have been forgotten and thrown away by the “civilized society” that exists outside.
Love is Strange draws its title from the famous Mickey & Sylvia song (written by Bo Diddley) that’s featured in “Dirty Dancing,” in a scene that Megan and Carl playfully re-create during a high intensity moment. Echoing Quinten Tarantino’s patented mash-ups of absurdly upbeat pop songs with unrepentant malevolence (think Mr. Blonde dancing to “Stuck in the Middle with You” in “Reservoir Dogs”), Paraventi introduces this uncomfortable blip of light within the impenetrable darkness of his play; but it’s simply too weighed down to have much impact.
Weighed down by the atrocities gleefully and repeatedly committed against vulnerable young women on stage; weighed down by pedophilia; weighed down by the way in which young Megan repeatedly performs her costume changes on stage (and two other female characters wear precious little), making the play feel exploitative; weighed down by a horror movie-inspired final moment; and weighed down by the paucity of any joy or hope or human compassion.
Love is Strange undoubtedly draws a strong reaction from viewers, and in the end, it’s about humanity’s darkest places. I get that.
But I also couldn’t help but wonder: if there’s nothing substantive to take away from such a grueling, unnerving visit – why are we going, again?
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