Pete Simpson and Ben Williams as Gregor and Alesh

Pete Simpson and Ben Williams as Gregor and Alesh

Grimly Handsome, a Modernist work that marks the longevity of the form on the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” the Armory Show of Modern Art, and Edmund Husserl’s Ideas, is a play in three acts. In part 1 we meet Alesh (Ben Williams) and Gregor (Pete Simpson), two Christmas tree lot attendants who appear to be salesmen, woodsmen, and gangsters all at once. Natalia (Jenny Seastone Stern) is a customer who is strangely compelled to shop for trees at Alesh and Gregor’s stand.

The stage is arranged to evoke an unquiet, uncanny mood. Alesh and Gregor speak to each other in flat, contemporary American English, but when they speak to outsiders their speech has a Russian inflection. Like an Eastern European fairy tale, the Christmas tree lot — a dark forest in the city — is an in-between place that little girls are warned to avoid. And, indeed, when Alesh and Gregor are speaking to each other in our familiar American idiom, they plot Natalia’s kidnapping and murder.

Part 2 introduces us to Alpert and Greggins, two hard boiled detectives on the force investigating a serial killer who has left a corpse under the tree every Christmas for the last several years. They don’t have many clues, and poor Alpert is clueless about his wife Nelly’s infidelity with Greggins. As they search for the Christmas Killer(s), Alpert becomes aware that his life is not what it seems. As you might expect, part 2 ends in violence. Greggins lies in a pool of his own blood, and just as the light at the end of his tunnel is about to wink out, he hears the animal respiration of some terrible, irrational, but intelligent monster who plans to grind his bones to make bread.

Alfo, Grox, and Noplop slouch toward Bethlehem (the cheap, plastic creche on the Chrstimas tree lot?) to be born in Part 3. Not exactly of this world, their costumes nevertheless evoke raccoons. Alfo is dining on a femur bone fit for an elephant (or a human, perhaps, if we scale it to raccoon size), and he tells the others to get a taste of that necrotic delight. At first Grox and Noplop are reluctant to feast on flesh of the geo-biological Oppressor, but after some lengthy discussion they come around. The curtain (metaphorically) falls after Noplop speaks a warning to the audience: we have always been here in the shadows, she says, waiting for your downfall. When it comes, we will pick your bones clean.

Ms. Jarcho, whose play Dreamless Land was reviewed here, is a student of Modernism, so it is not at all surprising that Grimly Handsome has all the markings of a Modernist work of art. Plot is secondary to highly stylized dialogue. If you are looking for a nice story to relax and unwind you, or a moving tale of morality — good and evil — Grimly Handsome will frustrate you. Just like Stravinky and the Modernists of yore, resolution is resolutely avoided. In place of a decipherable moral, Ms Jarcho substitutes coincidences, like the analogy of names across three acts, and the carrier wave of genre, both noir and fairy tale. Grimly Handsome is, in the words of august literary critic Terry Eagleton, “a mysteriously autotelic object, free of all contaminating truck with the real.”

If you haven’t seen seen any of Ms. Jarcho’s work, and you want to get into the spirit of 1913, I highly recommend Grimly Handsome. It has all the unheimlich angst of Modernism with little to no unnecessary prosaic fat. If you saw Dreamless Land, however, you may be slightly disappointed. Grimly Handsome’s use of noir tropes gives the middle of the play a pulpy, genre-driven feel, and the sharp — almost breathtaking — use of noir language that made Dreamless Land thrilling occasionally runs threadbare in Grimly Handsome. That said, Grimly Handsome is one thousand times more entertaining than Django Unchained. Cooper Gardner’s sound design is both jarring and subliminal, worthy of the space that (barely) contained so many Richard Foreman plays. So if you value craft over ostentation, walk past the cinema and check out this theater.

Through January 20th

@ Incubator Arts Project in St. Mark’s Church

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