Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

A Behanding in Spokane,
Hamletmachine and Medeaplays

Pearce Bunting, Reuben Mitchell and
Amanda Shoonover

Photo by Paola Nogueras
In the program for Theatre Exile's A Behanding in Spokane, Waldo Warshaw is listed as the play's "Stump Master." That's a job position I'd never heard of, and when I read it, I was, you'll forgive me, stumped as to what it might mean. I'm still not completely sure what the job entails. But considering that this play is the story of a man searching for his missing hand, and finding quite a few imposter hands during his pursuit, I think I have a hunch.

We're in playwright/screenwriter Martin McDonagh's world, a place where macabre, bloody humor feels perfectly natural, where oddness is an everyday occurrence, and where arguments over semantics can be a matter of life or death. It's a world Theatre Exile made vivid in last season's wonderful version of McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore. A Behanding in Spokane doesn't have the sustained, relentless lunacy of Inishmore, but it's a worthy successor, nicely fitting into that twilight world where nothing makes sense but every action has its own twisted logic.

Carmichael, played with an absorbing, unsettling glower by Pearce Bunting, has spent the last 27 years searching for the hand that got cut off in a bizarre attack. Now he is sitting in a fleabag hotel determined to administer his own brand of justice to the young pot dealers Toby (Reuben Mitchell) and Marilyn (Amanda Schoonover) who sold him a severed hand just to get a cash reward. (Where did they find a severed hand? It's a long story.) But killing these two losers won't be easy, not with the hotel's reception desk clerk (Matt Pfeiffer), the only guy in town who can challenge Carmichael for sheer weirdness, butting in.

Director Joe Canuso maintains the balance of comedy and tension the work demands. Bunting's Carmichael is equally menacing whether he's pointing a gun at someone's head or sitting at the edge of his bed, staring into space. Pfeiffer's desk clerk is happily oblivious to how much damage he's causing, while Mitchell and Schoonover are hilarious as they keep slipping further into danger while trying to get their cover stories straight. It's all played out on Meghan Jones' meticulously decayed hotel room set, with stained, cracked plaster always in danger of falling.

While Inishmore kept moving at a breakneck pace until it reached its absurd conclusion, A Behanding in Spokane feels more measured, stopping to contemplate the darkness in Carmichael's soul. These quiet moments don't always feel earned, and Behanding doesn't always balance its conflicting elements. (Carmichael's racism and homophobia feel out of place, and attempts to make his hatefulness funny don't always succeed. He's not Archie Bunker with a gun.) But at its best, McDonagh's play is a wildly outrageous and satisfying entertainment, and Theatre Exile approaches it with an endearingly eccentric spirit.

And as for Waldo Warshaw, I just hope that there's a "Stump Master" category at this year's Barrymore Awards. He'd win, hands down. (Sorry.)

A Behanding in Spokane runs through May 13, 2012, and is presented by Theatre Exile at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30 - $35, with discounts available for groups, and are available by calling (215) 218-4055 or online at

Hamletmachine and Medeaplays are two short plays by Heiner Müller (translated by Carl Weber) that take two of the greatest characters in drama and plop them into East Berlin circa 1989, just as the Berlin Wall is falling. There's a lot of symbolism and a lot of talk about capitalism, commercialism, and existential angst. The actors in the Renegade Company's production, staged in the Underground Arts space at 12th and Callowhill, are made up like punk rockers in artfully ragged clothes (and, in Hamlet's case, a radical haircut). The characters are constantly moving about, unsettled by their newfound freedom.

The audience gets moved about too. After I arrived at Underground Arts, while actors milled about me in the darkness and repeatedly offered me Coca-Cola, I sat down in front of a small stage, pulled out my notepad, and prepared to watch the show, along with about a dozen other audience members. One of the four actors sat down next to me and asked me a rather vague question about political dissent. I gave an equally vague answer.

A minute or two later, the actors began to yell at us to move along into an adjoining room. I figured the show would be moving from room to room and we'd be back at the original stage soon, so I left my notepad (which I use for taking notes for my review) on my chair. But I was wrong: we were all moved into a second room with its own stage, where the rest of the play took place. Since I couldn't leave this second room to retrieve my notepad without disrupting the performance, I had to sit for 75 minutes unable to take any notes about this complex, demanding show. I wish I could give you more details on the show and its themes, but I had no way of recording them. And this made me so angry that I couldn't fully concentrate on the show's message.

Meanwhile, the compulsory audience participation continued; at one point I was handed a crushed Coca-Cola can and instructed to hurl it at an actor playing East German President Erich Honecker (I think). And a torrent of words passed by, with multiple themes started and abandoned too quickly to make a sustained impact.

The physical production is very impressive, as are the passionate, driven lead performances by Griffin Stanton-Ameisen as Hamlet and Corinna Burns as Medea (with Kevin Chick and Dani Joy Owen playing multiple supporting roles). And if you like shows that challenge you at every turn, you'll enjoy this production. But if you don't like being manipulated, this probably isn't the show for you.

Hamletmachine and Medeaplays run through May 5, 2012, and are presented by The Renegade Company at Underground Arts @ The Wolf Building, 1201 Callowhill Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $20, with discounts available for seniors, students and industry, and are available at

-- Tim Dunleavy

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