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Stalking the Bogeyman

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Roderick Hill
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Can a story be too dramatic for the stage? While watching Stalking the Bogeyman, which just opened at New World Stages, I was convinced the answer was yes.

Being a tale that cuts right to the core of our deepest fears—variously as children, parents, sexual beings, and just plain humans—it's easy to see why Markus Potter decided to adapt and direct for the theatre David Holthouse's powerful memoir. Originally published in the Colorado alt-weekly Westword in 2004 and recreated for This American Life in 2011, it relates Holthouse's turbulent life over some 30 years with a close friend of his family: how the friend raped him at age seven, the impact it made on Holthouse's upbringing, and how the grown-up Holthouse planned to effect the friend's murder.

Heavy stuff, this, to be sure. (And, obviously, not for children or the squeamish.) But in relating what happened before, during, and after that event that became tangled with every fiber of his life, Holthouse discovered not just therapy but absolution, and somehow delivered a shimmering catharsis through circumstances that, thanks to the infinite vagaries of existence, did not produce a conclusion most of us might consider "satisfying."

But what's not a problem with the written word, or even a spoken recitation thereof, does become more problematic onstage. The images our imaginations capture, and the blanks we necessarily fill in with our own feelings and prejudices, tend to evaporate once they're literalized. So even though Potter's script, essentially a monologue for the actor playing David (in this case, the excellent Roderick Hill), contains enormous swaths of Holthouse's writing (augmented with additional contributions from Shane Zeigler, Shane Stokes, and Santino Fontana), it immediately becomes more distant and less real, oral history we want—or, perhaps more precisely, need—to believe has been embellished in the telling. Unfortunately, that is not inherently theatrical.

As a result, neither is the show. In the moments Hill's narration is not pushing us through a terrifyingly clinical recounting of the facts as David remembers them, various parents, therapists, and other characters (all played well by Kate Levy, Murphy Guyer, John Herrera, and Roxanne Hart) irrupt into the action like unwanted memories. But it comes across as, at best, ornamentation; very few of these scenes, with the exception of the taut one late in the evening in which David's parents confront the parents of the rapist, is memorable, let alone essential. And some, such as two separate fantasies in which David brutalizes the rapist, are actually damaging—like so much else in the play, making explicit that which is more effectively left unstated.

This is not to say that Potter hasn't worked hard to make a play out of this disquieting situation; his stark, unforgiving staging, and the matter-of-fact design (David Goldstein did the comfortably cramped Alaskan refuge set, Erik T. Lawson the haunting original music and sound design, Tristan Raines the costumes, and Cory Pattak the lights) all represent good choices. But most of his attempts only highlight the difficulties before him.

Casting the classically handsome, with-it Hill as David diminishes too easily fears about how the young boy's psychology will twist the later man. And putting a face and voice to the rapist himself gives you too real a focal point of rage and disgust; though Erik Heger does his best with the part, even eliciting some sympathy when he must stop shrinking from his crimes, there's no way to "feel" for him in the traditional way Potter apparently intends. And because the writing is so tightly tethered to Holthouse's narrative, departures are discouraged and most adjustments too minor to be useful. (One of the biggest, a severe downplaying of the stalking itself, leaving little more than showing him pondering a map of Denver and buying a gun in Arizona, obliterates from David's characterization much-needed detail.)

Holthouse's journalistic remove ensures that David remains a cipher even when he's breathing and aching, something that doesn't work well in this context. Questions that are beside the point on the page feel critical by their absence in the play—foremost among them, how did this affect David's romantic relationships? And other scenes that you know have to be there, primarily the one in which David meets the rapist on the day of the planned killing, seems almost too intimate, as though you ought to be much farther away from ground zero than Potter is letting you.

Again, however, it's not easy to determine how real we need—or want—David and his agony to be. Stalking the Bogeyman is unsettling from its natural distance, and even if that prevents Potter's effective play from acquiring the same breath-stealing power as Holthouse's writing, it's perhaps all for the best. Leaving what little remains for our minds to conjure preserves some stitch of our own innocence, giving us a thread, however thin, of belief that the world is not as ugly and destructive a place as Holthouse's experience proves it too often can be.

Stalking the Bogeyman
Through February 1, 2015
New World Stages / Stage 5, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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