Film noir, stuffed and baked

A play that plays on the shadowy world of film noir would be hard-pressed to find a better-suited performance space than the Furniture Factory. The concrete-and-steel interior gives off an expressive coldness from all sides, boxing in the audience. The darkness seems denser than normal. When the lights go down, the eye is left to fend for itself, scanning for slits of white light under the doors.

Walk & Squawk Performance Project’s newest play, Dirty Little Stories (written by Hilary Ramsden and Erika Block), is right at home here. In the barren basement-like room, brooding disillusionment, existential themes and sardonic wit can cut loose and celebrate themselves with abandon.

Performers Hilary Ramsden (the male protagonist) and Yvonne DuQue (the femme fatale) play ill-fated lovers as composite characters. They’re more like types — the same two characters from 100 different films roaming shifting realities in a rotating montage of seductions, police chases, robberies, betrayals, flashbacks, narrow escapes, murders, memories and shoot-outs.

Besides being in an ideal space, Dirty Little Stories has the strength of excellent staging and solid sound design. From a small rectangular pool set into the cement floor Ramsden delivers her opening monologue, while DuQue wields a big butcher knife while preparing a raw chicken for baking on a 1950s white enameled gas stove on the opposite side of the room. Between the two scenes, a steady stream of water trickles down a rusting steel beam to a growing puddle on the floor. It spreads and spreads, while the chicken bakes, as evidenced by the warm, briny smell that wafts through the room from time to time. A clock ticks loudly.

“How long does it take to bake a chicken?” Ramsden muses, standing naked in the pool with a toy rubber duck. The question becomes a marker of time, a tug on the mind toward awareness. In a weird way, the chicken does too: “How many times can you fuck in the time it takes to bake a chicken?” It also becomes a metaphor for love, the human body and vulnerability.

Ramsden reappears suited up in gray trousers, a starched shirt, suspenders and a gentleman’s hat. She is transformed into the classic male protagonist, whose analytical powers are blacked-out by his heart’s darker desires. S/he is carrying a suitcase and looking more like William Burroughs than one imagines a woman could.

DuQue hides under a sweeping shoulder-length blond wig and dark conservative dress with pumps that suggest the quintessential 1950s Hollywood diva. Both smoke excessively. He lights her cigarette with his, suggesting the lovemaking scene that is never shown. They move suspiciously, carefully, almost dancing in the haze while Astor Piazzola’s “Libertango” plays on.

The audience must strain its neck from time to time when the action moves to a gloomily lit loft on the left. Up the turning, black, spiral staircase, DuQue slips into the character of a pulp fiction writer in a trench coat and hat, hunched over, tapping furiously on an old clacking typewriter. She narrates another piece of the composite tale: the analysis.

Imitative of the film noir voice-overs that tend to muse bitterly over the folly and evil in the human heart, her monologues are full of stray irony and dry humor. Here it becomes clear that the cogency of the play rests more on exploring themes and achieving a certain mood than consistency in details.

After all, the story is based on cycles: The chicken bakes; the couple smokes (makes love); the crime is committed; the chase is on; the lover is betrayed, etc.

With the added texture of notable lines from film noir classics such as Casablanca, L.A. Confidential, Touch of Evil, Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep, Dirty Little Stories moves from just plain bizarre to dreamily engaging. Although the symbolism is a bit off-the-wall and the narrative nebulous, the play is an interesting bit of theater from a creative group worth keeping an eye on.

Dirty Little Stories runs through Sun., May 12 at the Furniture Factory, 4126 Third, Detroit. Friday and Saturday shows are at 8 p.m.; the Sunday show is at 4 p.m. Call 313-832-8890 for tickets and information.

Norene Cashen writes about performance for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]
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