Cherry Red Productions prides itself on being outrageous, offering shows that revel in smut and vulgarity. Its current production, "Penetrator," won't disappoint hard-core Cherry Red fans: It provides plenty of industrial-strength profanity, prurience and sleaze.
But "Penetrator," playing at the Source Theatre, is more than a flippant celebration of filth. It's a dense, provocative black comedy about war, fear, memory and friendship. The play was written by Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson in response to the 1991 Gulf War, and its references to Iraq make the script sound relevant to current events. "Penetrator" is not really about any specific war in any particular year, however. It's about all wars and the destructive effects war can have on those it touches, soldiers and noncombatants alike.
The play begins with a hitchhiking Marine, absentmindedly looking for a ride while reading a porn magazine. The focus then shifts to a crummy apartment inhabited by two young men, Max and Alan, who are spicing up their Friday night with drugs and alcohol. They play cards and playfully criticize everything -- particularly the woman who has just dumped Max.
The juxtaposition of these two very different scenes -- the sad loner and the carefree roommates -- sets the tone for the rest of the play, which is a series of violent mental and physical conflicts. When the AWOL Marine, Stiffy, appears at the apartment, he is distressed, rambling wildly about the "penetrators" who locked him in a black room and tortured him sexually. The roommates' party mood ends abruptly.
Max and Alan then try to help Stiffy, who clearly has been traumatized by some inexplicable event. In the process, facts about the two friends' relationship are dredged up, as well as memories of Stiffy and Max's friendship as children.
Director Kathleen Akerley sets a very fast tempo, smoothly orchestrating all the plot and character twists and playing up the humor in this very dark drama. A great deal of what happens in "Penetrator" is implied or suggested rather than stated, and Akerley has skillfully capitalized on that subtlety.
Jonathon Church is powerful in the role of Stiffy, a terrifying mix of childlike vulnerability and killer instincts. The role calls for Stiffy to alternate between twin delusions -- of conspiracy against him and of his own absolute power. Church swings wildly between them, capturing the fear and pathos of Stiffy's character.
Max is portrayed well by Richard Price. At the start of the play, Max is a goofy, immature guy who lives on Spam, martinis, Kit Kat bars and drugs. Later, the character must sober up and mature quickly in order to talk Stiffy out of a murderous frenzy. Price depicts both aspects of Max's personality with conviction.
Peter Wylie is excellent as Alan. Although the humor in the play is divided among all three characters, Wylie's energy and timing highlight the comedic nature of the play. Like Max, Alan goes through a radical shift from one set of characteristics to another, flipping from cool nonchalance to dread. Wylie makes the transition smoothly, wrenching the plot into new territory, where assumptions about civilized human behavior don't hold true.
The set for "Penetrator," designed by David Ghatan, and the props, by M.V. Jantzen, create a clear reflection of Max and Alan's life. The scruffy sofa, ratty rug, coffee table made of cinder blocks, stacks of newspapers and old pizza boxes speak volumes about what has gone before this particular Friday night. The sound design, by Lucas Zarwell, is extremely effective, particularly the deep, electronically altered voice that establishes the menace booming inside Stiffy's head.
Neilson has said of his own work that he believes it's possible "to be both subtle and visceral." This production of "Penetrator" turns that possibility into a reality.
Penetrator, by Anthony Neilson. Directed by Kathleen Akerley. Costumes, Rhonda Key. Lighting, Adam Magazine. At the Source Theatre Company, 1835 14th St. NW, through May 17. Call 202-298-9077.