Adam Rapp’s Ghosts in the Cottonwoods, featuring the Amoralists at Theatre 80, is without question some of the most raw and intestine twisting theater happening in New York City right now. The daunting text of the play is rife with absurdist exaggeration, sordid history, and unadulterated violence—both of a physical and sexual nature—and the subject matter and premise seem to sit outside of any contemporary conversation about society that is ongoing in theater. Much like the playwright’s Kitchen Timer, which asked whether the common person was capable of murder for the right price, Rapp again pushes the limits of the human mind and what it can and cannot endure. Ghosts in the Cottonwoods haunts the regions fringing the standard dramatic spectrum and in so doing creates a space of its own, one that matches the surreal pieces of the set and the purgatorial limbo they define for the actors. But this great strength is also a partial weakness; after 90 almost painfully intense minutes, with no intermission (though it didn’t feel quite so long) the audience was left enraptured, and satisfied, yet oddly perplexed, as the question remained, what had been at stake in the first place? Have the spirits haunting these tortured characters finally been exorcised?
Ghosts in the Cottonwoods takes place on a typically dark and stormy night in the middle of nowhere in a run down cabin that seems to have been pieced together by toddlers using refuse found on the road side. The action begins with Pointer Scully (Nick Lawson) standing before the audience as his mother, Bean Scully (Sarah Lemp), sucks venom from leech lesions that he got from swimming in the frog pond. There’s a certain Oedipal charge to their interactions as Lemp slaps her son on the bum for good measure, but the spark is unfounded, indicative instead of a tender love between mother and son, bred out of a loneliness caused by the loss of Pointer’s father (we find out exactly how later on) and the monotony of life in their middle-of-nowhere American outpost. The sense of unease at this unconventional relationship and isolation from the world is heightened by their speech—a Southern accent mixed with hyperbole and stuttering. Bean asks Pointer why he’s so nervous, and he responds that he fears the woods (the “Hackbores. Slownecks. Crazy things. The Flaptooth”). His mother scoffs at her son’s fantasies, but she never leaves her “life room” so how could she know about the “dogsnakes?” “Stuff evolves,” Pointer states as a matter of fact.
Which is something the Amoralists as a theater company have solidified as their true talent, an ability to adapt to any situation or text. Lemp is phenomenal as the controlling and vindictive mother, Bean, adding just the right touch of crazy to all her actions and voice. The role is a stark departure from her playing of a Coney Island-born and raised, mini-dress-wearing housewife to a failed boxer in Happy in the Poorhouse, which was put on in the same theater. Similarly, Lawson creates an endearing portrait of an Eminem-channeling, simple, and illiterate youth, with big dreams of getting on the radio with his rhymes in New York City. Interestingly, despite seemingly white-trash ethics and down-home Southern politics and ignorance, the only black characters in the play are Jay-Z and De La Soul—Pointer’s heroes in the hip-hop world. All signs point starkly to the necessity for Pointer to break from his mother and escape her squalid “life room” where he lives in a “bedroom” under the kitchen table.
Pointer’s salvation, however, arrives in a way that neither mother or son is prepared for as Pointer’s incarcerated older brother Jeff (James Kautz) arrives with a fellow unnamed inmate (Mathew Pilieci) from a dark metaphor of hell and claws his way into the narrative, eating ravenously like an animal and unable to speak like a human any longer. Jeff has brought with him a massive text he has written about roughly two thousand different kinds of sandwiches and he proceeds to ruin the carefully prepared homecoming that Bean Scully has imagined for her long-imprisoned son. Jeff’s arrival brings the mysterious and meandering narrative into sharp focus, and we learn everything that was previously unknown, whether we like what we hear or not. After a very violent and grotesque 10 minutes or so of wordless action (though there is plenty of noise), Jeff and the inmate leave, as quickly as they came, carrying Pointer’s girlfriend Shirley off with them. The lack of speech at this point in the play was startling as the previous minutes were so dialogue and stutter heavy, but the effect is captivating. Pointer pulls a shotgun, but it’s unloaded and the jail breakers escape unharmed, leaving the younger brother with his broken home, his broken mother, and the need to make a long over due decision about undoing the ties from his current predicament. In a twist, Shirley returns with the sun, bloody, holding something in her hands, babbling about the snow falling from the trees as “it all happened so fast” and though the demons are finally gone, even the stately cottonwoods now seem menacing, daylight or not.
Though Ghosts in the Cottonwoods seems to muck about in a type of filth and violence that threatens to cross into pure shock and awe, the action never feels unnecessary and rather serves to create the chaos demanded by a cruel world to shake his characters loose from their tired and mind numbing routines. Rapp seems to be of the mind that the change we need sometimes has to be wrapped around our necks with a garrote wire or shot into our legs with a .30-06, and that the ghosts were never in the cottonwoods to begin with; they are in the people who live beneath them, ready to be pulled out and cast away along with the bolt from the crossbow sticking out of their kneecaps. And perhaps, in an overtly sadistic way, he is right.
Ghosts in the Cottonwoods is now playing at Theatre 80 (80 St. Mark’s Place) in New York City through December 6. Schedule: Mon, Thu-Sat at Sun at 3pm. Running time: 1 hour and 35 minutes, no intermission. For tickets, click here.