The award-winning Elephant Theatre Company is always daring if not downright innovative. Their current offering is a study in noir, exploring stereotypical gangster films while delving into matters of sexuality, aggression, romance, and gender. To accomplish all this, the company has produced two versions of the play Block Nine by Tom Stanczyk, one for the “dames” and one for the “fellas.”
For a play originally written for an all-male cast, this experiment in cross-gender casting is certainly provocative. The night I attended it was the “fella's” turn, though I have been told that the “dames” evening is extremely titillating and a totally different experience. To achieve these two points of view using only one script, the two versions are directed by two different directors, Emilie Beck for the “dames” and Pete Uribe for the “fellas.”
As a same-sex retro homage to the old gangster films, the production I saw is, if nothing else, provocative. The story follows a young detective (an excellent Jeremy Glazer) who goes undercover over the objections of his lover (the wry Kenny Suarez). The detective, suggestively named “Lockjaw,” enters a maximum-security prison to gain information on the whereabouts of uber-gangster Cody (the buff and scary Max Williams). While in prison he must kiss another gangster, Lips (the bald and built Max Rimmer), in order to get the information. Male kissing, and deep kissing at that, plays a big role in the development of the loose plot.
The story shifts to Cody’s hideout where he is torturing an effeminate Armand (the funny Louis Douglas Jacobs) whose corpse haunts the rest of the play once Cody has become bored with him and bumps him off. Cody has an entourage of other questionable types, Nails (a sweaty Darryl Armbruster), Putty (a whiny Ryan Radis), and Johnny Bell (Josh Breeding) whose scene in which he tries to shave Cody is a highlight. Jeremy Glaser is excellent as Lockjaw, and must bravely put up with lots of physical abuse.
Director Peter Uribe does the most he can with a script that never fully pays off but is nonetheless engaging. He needed to rein in Max Williams a bit. He has so invested himself in the part of the psychotic Cody that you can feel threatened just being in his presence, but at the same time, Cody is a cartoon right out of Dick Tracy by way of David Lynch, and we get so caught up in his menace and quirks that the story get lost a bit.
Block Nine (“Fellas”) is playing in rep with the ”Dames” version at the Lillian Theatre until September 20th.