Many years ago, writer-director-actor-bohemian Matt Posey travestied a classic American drama. It was back in the days of his old haunt, the Deep Ellum Theatre Garage, and it was the “gentleman caller” scene from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Posey portrayed Williams’ iconic Southern dowager Amanda Wingfeld as a demurely demented Scotsman in drag. He had antlers shaped from pantyhose on his head and a spoke in a thick burr with a Southern flutiness mixed in. Suffice to say, it couldn’t have been funnier — or more bizarre — if Posey had abandoned Williams’ honey-tongued dialogue entirely and just chanted I Zimbra, Hugo Ball’s Dadaist nonsense poem.
So now, at last, we have the welcome Morphing at Posey’s Ochre House, an outrageous, Squidbillies-like send-up of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Unlike Posey’s long-ago manhandling of Menagerie — which was essentially a tossed-off, Monty Pythonish sketch –– Morphing is a full-length effort. And it’s overly long. It’s hard to sustain satiric mockery; it’s rather one-sided, after all, pummeling a defenseless, classic text and all of the related stage traditions of the realistic, American family drama.
Which is perhaps why, in the midst of the scatologically funny Morphing, Justin Locklear’s delicate performance as the morphine-addicted mother stands out as tender, even heartfelt. In a way, his Mary really is like a genteel belle out of a Tennessee Williams drama. She’s an ethereal embodiment of feminine culture and convent-taught privilege, stuck among all these profane brutes.
But well, this is an Ochre House production. Mary Bonner is addicted to opiates, so Locklear’s not-so-grande-dame comes across as stranger than any feminine embodiment — particularly when, in full morphine haze, she re-appears to the rest of the family, morphed into a glowing icon. It may be the oddest thing in a Posey production: a hauntingly lovely visual moment — even if it is deeply odd — and it comes from a wounded and funny character.
Americans clowning around with highfalutin’ drama is as old as the Royal Nonesuch in Huckleberry Finn. Such broad burlesquing is different from, say, the Wooster Group’s LSD (Part One), which radically autopsied Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The premiere production in 1984 was legally stopped by the playwright (they treated his play as a found object, he quipped, when it was never lost). Although LSD was reportedly antic in spots (it featured a black-face send-up of Tituba, the island slave girl), buffoonery and flatulent jokes were not really its diagnostic instruments of choice.
One suspects Posey is inspired by both these kinds of re-appraisal (and anything else he can get his hands on, late-night in rehearsal). He and Derek Horton once explicitly modeled Theatre Garage shows on the Wooster Group’s efforts. But Morphing flops around between these two poles, somewhere between a sharp-eyed re-invention and a taking-high-drama-down-a-few-pegs lampoon. To paraphrase Groucho Marx: This is a mockery of a sham of a travesty of a mockery of a deconstruction.
Which hardly prevents it from being outrageously funny. Posey’s rarely, consistently un-funny. It’s the antic, carnival touches that push Morphing beyond his typical, low-life fare. There’s a blowzy prostitute named Rosie played by a puppet, for instance — a common enough device at the Ochre House — but then, O’Neill’s famous foghorn symbol of addiction has become a fake-Cockney maid (the pop-eyed lively Cyndee Rivera) going around blowing a tuba.
What Posey and Co. have also done is go behind-the-scenes, as it were, of Long Day’s Journey to answer some questions about O’Neill’s dramatic action: Where does Mary get her drugs? (We see her amusingly hard-nosed dealings with the local meth dealer.) What were Mary and the rest like — before her addiction and her husband James’ miserliness ruined everything? (We see a flag-waving family beach outing to send son Edmund off to war.)
In this way, O’Neill’s drama now mostly provides just a spine of recriminations for Posey to flesh out (or riff on), a roundelay of family member blaming family member. James (played by Posey) blames his sons’ wastrel lives on their atheism or laziness, Mary blames her husband’s cheapskate ways for her addiction, he blames Mary’s addiction on her own lack of strength and so on. The cranky, pathetic Grandpa Boo (Kevin Grammer) sums up the whole mess by telling James they all should go to hell (phrased more pungently, of course).
As with most Posey productions, things are ragged. The family enters from a drive (cleverly handled through a video projection), and father James mentions going past Saginaw, which is in Michigan. On the beach, they refer to the ocean, which isn’t anywhere near Michigan. Son Edmund is suffering from his service in Vietnam, but everyone’s dressed more or less like it’s the ’20s or ’30s and talking like it’s the ’50s.
Who cares? Consistency has never been a goal at or anywhere near the Ochre House. Anything for a laugh or anything to offend is more the M.O. here, which is why Posey’s productions tend to break out or break down. He’ll merrily step through the fourth wall as needed or even when it’s not needed. Son Jamie (Mitchell Parrack) calls Rosie a puppet skank instead of going along with the pretense that she’s human. Meanwhile, Posey’s James is too delicate to name out loud the facts of Mary’s addiction, so he eagerly mimes shooting up in detail. And amidst all this speaking-truth-to-comedy, Edmund can’t understand why no one else recognizes the maid’s Cockney accent is an obvious put-on.
This is one reason Locklear’s performance stands as something of a beacon — his Mary has almost the only affecting through-line in the play. Anyone else will drop character or break convention (or break wind) for a gag. Morphing isn’t as sputteringly profane as the Coppertone puppet shows; it’s more ambitious than that. Weirdly enough, amid all of O’Neill’s despair and Posey’s mockery of despair, it almost feels hopeful because of such — for lack of a better word — humanity. It achieves a rarity of emotional response for Posey.
Funny as they are, we wish something better for these broken people.