Cain kills Abel and is burdened with a life of shame and exile. A few thousand years later, Kristin shoots J.R. and gets 83 million spellbound viewers. Why oh why, people, can’t we make up our minds whether murder is bad?
Among all springboards of storytelling, murder’s the biggie – the ultimate Bad Act – and even its mention churns up questions of power, control, security, love, longing, fear, and anger management techniques. The Starving Artist Theatre explores these issues in four distinct one-act plays. For the most part, however, the scenarios brush against the surface of compelling questions and then meander, growing ponderous and one-dimensional long before show’s end.
It’s a shame, because without exception each member of the cast has some strong moments, and some of the comedy works. The Starving Artist Theatre is a passionate, collaborative group that deserves our continued attention. If only this round of stories had a little less chatter and a lot more punch.
The first piece, “Number 6” by Sage C. McCullough, is the simplest and strongest of the four: two men sit next to each other – one nervously pallid (Matt Dewberry), one smug and comfortable (Allen Carrington Brooks) – and discuss whether killing is always, always wrong. Their list of exceptions- to protect oneself, to fix an abusive relationship, to protect a child, to save a city – are deep and resonant starting points. Unfortunately, they’re instantly dropped.
After an amusing plot twist, the cast segues into Jessica R. Pearson’s “Last Whisp of Cotton,” a Southern-fried tragic romance about a thickheaded farmhand named Henry (Matt Wood) who has a chance encounter with a flighty city girl named Miss Sutton (Jennifer Donovan, doing genteel hysteria with admirable conviction). A bleak series of events with his wife (a scrubbed, appealing Meghan Winch) leads to murder, but there is no empathy to be had with Henry, whose derangement is simply fear and self-indulgence. Rather than crackling in the summer heat, “The Last Whisp Of Cotton” simply melts.
The ensemble follows with Danny Devlin’s wryly titled “Let’s Go Kill A Guy,” the least interesting staging of the night. Two twentysomethings at a bar discuss their fear that life has lost its thrill, and construct a rambling justification for killing a homeless man for “something to do, to fill this void.” For more than half an hour the scene spins its wheels, as neither friend (Brooks and Wood) is sure if the other actually wants to do it, and they don’t seem to care much either way. It’s like Albert Camus does Hamlet, without the ironic self-awareness.
The pace picks up a bit for the fourth piece, “Why It’s Okay To Kill An Old Lady” (also by McCullough), a sporadically funny revenge fantasy between two hosts on the Home Shopping Network.
Shows about murder – matters of life and death – need to live right on the razor’s edge, teetering on the thin red line between Yes and No, tasting the salty little differences between Should, Would, and Can. The one-acts in Thou Shalt Not Kill lack tension, that frantic tremble of a soul balancing on the edge. Everyone chats about murder, but no one has a dry throat, a hot forehead, or a single tear in their eye. Rather than tease out the threads of intention with a live audience, the stories feel pre-examined, unraveled in a pile on the floor.
Talk is cheap. If Cain had just mulled it all over with his buddies, Abel wouldn’t have had to die. But, then, we wouldn’t have a story either.
Thou Shalt Not Kill: A Collection Of One Acts
Written by Sage C. McCullough, Jessica R. Pearson, and Danny Devlin
Directed by Jessica R. Pearson
Produced by The Starving Artist Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles