Some plays are intended to disturb--not just by shaking up the audience through provocative ideas, but by using the theatrical platform to create a viscerally unsettling experience. Once such play is Jerk, ending a short run at Performance Space 122 as part of the Under the Radar Festival.
Jerk essentially is an hour spent inside the head of a torturer/murderer. Based on the events of an actual serial murder spree that took place in Texas some thirty years ago, Jerk recounts some of the gory killings perpetrated by a middle aged man and his two teenage accomplices. The grisly tale is related by “David Brooks,” the surviving member of the threesome, who uses a set of puppets to relate the story.
When the audience enters the theater, “David,” intensely portrayed by French actor/performance artist Jonathan Capdevielle, is waiting patiently for us on a folding chair set up on the floor of a dingy basement suggestive of the one in which the killings took place, or perhaps a space in a facility for the criminally insane. It seems that David has been performing his little puppet shows before audiences of psychology students, not unlike ourselves, perhaps as a form of psychotherapy or to serve as a living cautionary tale along the lines of those reformed former gang members who make the rounds of the country’s middle schools
Once we are seated, an usher comes around bearing booklets titled “Two texts for a puppet play by David Brooks.” Before he begins, David says, he wants us to read the first of these “nonfiction texts” so we have the appropriate background to understand his story. These preludes crudely establish the story, which David then completes by acting out the gruesome events with his crudely-made puppets. One puppet represents Dean, the ringleader; one represents David’s cohort and sexual partner, Wayne; and another represents the victims. David tells us he himself will be the puppet representing David.
Note that I have twice used the word “crude,” because that’s the most apt description for the first half of the play, in which “David” re-enacts several of the tortures and killings, as well as the sexual activities in which he says the trio engaged during and after the deeds. It is disturbing, not for psychological reasons, but only because it is most unpleasant to watch. Certainly it was not surprising to see a number of audience members leave about 20 minutes into Jerk.
Still, those who remained did get to experience the play’s real strength during the last 20 minutes or so. After we have read the second selection from “Two texts,” we return to a David who has abandoned puppetry and the physical re-enactments of the first section. Through a powerful act of ventriloquism (the program identifies a ventriloquism coach), Capdevielle as David continues the story in the three voices he used in the first half. Here, he has succeeded in getting us inside of David’s head, without moving his lips or using the puppets; indeed, as the play comes to a close, David seems to fall into a catatonic state, drool dripping from his mouth as we hear his memories, up until the arrival of the police.
I do not want to oversell the last 20 minutes of Jerk against the first 40, which are most off-putting—taking us not to any psychological insights, but into the realm inhabited by contemporary horror/torture movies like Saw and Hostel. Yet the play, as a whole, does provide a visceral experience while raising a serious consideration of the nature of someone who would be drawn into a world such as that experienced by David, Wayne, and Dean.
Beyond that, we wonder about the reliability of David as the narrator, who does come off as relatively less corrupt than the other two--whose stories are, after all, being represented by the person who killed one or both of them. Then again, we wonder if there ever were actually three killers, or did David’s mind merely concoct the other two?
In the end, I can’t really recommend to anyone I know that they see this play. The “gross-out” factor outweighs the psychological intrigue. Yet, I imagine that Jerk will stick in a corner of my mind along with other far more successfully disturbing plays like The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Shockheaded Peter, both of which I consider to be among the best shows of the first decade of the 21st century, as I will discuss in an upcoming blog entry.
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