Cactus in Winter

Live a little, die a little, molt a little, then live a little. Got it?

Listen: You really, really need to go see Animals & Plants at Mad Cat Theatre. I'm not kidding. Go.

When you do, here's what will happen: You will enter the theater by walking across the stage itself, and you will be struck by the dirty aesthetic purity of the thing. Set designer Sean McClelland has obviously spent far too much time in Podunk, North Carolina, motels midblizzard, and the burlap curtains over the windows communicate a sense of place far more profoundly than the smartly dressed metros filing in beside you. You are snow-bound in the middle of nowhere, long before an actor sets foot to stage.

Once the play starts, everything is a surprise. You've had conversations like the ones exchanged by Walt Dantley and Dan Burris (Erik Fabregat and Joe Kimble); you've had them on long road trips, stuck in a car with a frat buddy for 18 hours; you've had them when Hurricane Wilma took your power and you were left huddled around a generator with your friends for two weeks. Burris and Dantley are in just such a situation. They are two minor drug runners, snowed in at a cheap North Carolina motel, waiting for something to happen. Having run out of things to say, they say anything — asides, non sequiturs, random articulations of trivial thoughts. At first, this seems nonsensical, telling you more about the kinds of people Dantley and Burris are than who they are in particular. Dan Burris is the kind of guy who sprays Right Guard on his balls and uses quiet moments to work his rippling physique. Walt Dantley's the kind of guy who can lose himself in a television for ten or 12 hours only to come back to a room, crying softly into the congealed mess of a TV dinner for reasons even he doesn't understand. You'll learn more soon.

The great fun of seeing Animals & Plants is in picking the clues out of the great, confused word salad that comprises the first act's dialogue. Free-associating, Dantley and Burris begin tracing shapes in their talk. Some fade, but the shapes that hang around tell a story. An early theme is this: "What's in a name?" The men are supposed to meet a guy named "The Burning Man." What does a guy called "The Burning Man" look like? Tall and skinny, they decide — six-foot-six and 130 pounds. Walt wants to change his own name to "David" because "Dave Dantley" sounds more like a chef. Naw, Burris says: "Walt Dantley" is way cooler — it sounds like a baseball player. Better than "Dan Burris," anyway.

What do words mean? Dantley's not too bright, and Burris loves tossing out words that'll have him running to the dictionary. "What's a minion?" "What's a gable?" These are red herrings, and they don't mean much. Then, later: "What's molting mean?"

At last, something signifies. Burris isn't the kind of guy who's interested in molting; he's only interested in keeping things fresh. Right Guard to the rescue! But Dantley, on the other hand — well, he's never sprayed his balls with Right Guard. Instead, he shaved his ass.

Who cares? Nonsense! But for Dantley, at least, these small, pedestrian exchanges comprise a search. He doeswant to molt. Some time ago, he walked into a black church and sang with the choir till his throat hurt. Now, anguished, he blurts out: "Why aren't there, like, more black peoplein my life?" Dantley is supremely unhappy with the status quo.

As the men wend through their tired exchange with a naturalism so gloriously casual that it doesn't seem like "acting" at all, ugly things swim to the surface. You laugh at first, because you're prepped for humor. A year ago, on another drug run, Burris seduced a Midwestern girl. "She was only 17. She bled all over the carpet." Laughter, a little horror. This is a taster.

By the time the second act is under way, we have a much clearer picture of the kind of world we're looking at. This is a place where you can sell your dead baby to scientists for $50, where psychic girls can forecast deaths by the leaking of their nipples. Impossible things — a man emerging from an empty bathroom in a haze of smoke, offering Dantley a leg of lamb and a cactus before disappearing into the snow — are suddenly ordinary, and all definitions, especially the definitions of life and death, are in flux.

"Death" is what the Mad Cat is stalking in Animals & Plants, but like the "Death" card in a Tarot deck, it doesn't mean what you think. Its definition is pinned down early on, in an offhand reference to baseball slugger Dave Kingman. Recalling his childhood adoration of Kingman, Dantley says, "When he was traded, it felt like he'd... died."

If getting traded is analogous to death, Dave Kingman is a triumph of reincarnation. In a 15-year career, Kingman played for the Giants, Mets, Padres, Angels, Yankees, Cubs, and Athletics. This isn't explained; it's just a clue dropped before the conversation moves on. "Death" is left hanging there, its presence barely noted, until it reappears in the person of Kassandra, a "Chewbacca-crunchy" sexy chick from the local headshop, brought to screaming Technicolor life by the absurdly gifted Kei Berlin. It is through her that the impermanence of death — the possibility of molting— is finally awakened within Dantley. At the play's denouement, when the terrible sadness of a dead-end life in an incomprehensible world is boiled down to the remarkable image of a cactus in a snowstorm — a poetic rendering of a "stranger in a strange land" unequaled anywhere — resolution comes with the feeling of gears clicking, formulas solved, doubts banished. Within the relative safety of the theater, the necessity of death becomes a promise of change and a prelude to renewal.

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