On the civic-minded set of “The Minutes,” things get very strange, even funny, before going downright dark. Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama about a city council meeting gone awry launches the new season at the Curious Theatre Company with artistic aplomb and to roiling effect.
Letts, the author of the family meltdown drama “August: Osage County,” brings his knack for the implosive to what should be a routine Big Cherry city council meeting — if only Mr. Peel (played with hapless decency by Josh Robinson) would stop asking about the absence of Mr. Carp (Erik Sandvold).
New to the council, Peel has just returned from burying his mother. It’s only natural for him to wonder, what did I miss? When he last saw Carp, the latter was talking about a cache of stolen bicycles that the brother of another council member had come into lucrative possession of.
Carp’s chair and nameplate sit at the end of a long table, but he’s nowhere in sight. Why? Might a reading of the minutes of the council’s prior meeting clarify things?
The nonreplies, evasions and push-back provide the first hint that something may be out of whack. Then there’s the fact that from the play’s outset, there have been the rumblings of a storm. (Sound designer Jason Ducat and lighting designer Richard Devin make deft work of wielding the theater’s version of special effects.) Later, lightning will illuminate the stage. And this taut one act, which begins as one kind of play — a farce of governance perhaps — builds into something more sinister, troubling and rending.
Still, things begin civil enough. The small talk between the colleagues, a mix of cordiality, disinterest or low-grade wariness, provides its own amusing dance. Mentions of Kiwanis pancake suppers, bridge gatherings and daughters’ ages lend a neighborly vibe to the room.
That atmosphere is mildly undercut by the triumvirate of Mayor Superba (Michael McNeill), Mr. Assalone (William Hahn) and Mr. Breeding (Michael Morgan). Gathered at one table, they look like a power throuple and behave like one as well. “Breeding is the weathervane. Assalone is the junkyard dog,” Mr. Blake (Cajardo Lindsey) tells Peel.
With its mute expression of the solemn work of democracy, Markas Henry’s evocative set provides a perfect counterpoint to what unfolds onstage. Early chatter gives way to peevish grievances, a doublespeak absurd enough to rival Abbott and Costello and one thoughtful bill likely not to see the light of day.
Disrupting a meeting that has yet to hew to “Robert’s Rules of Order,” Ms. Innes (Kathryn Gray) asks to enter into the record a rambling statement about how sacred the Big Cherry Heritage Festival is to one and all. It is after all a celebration of the battle that led to the founding of the town: a fight between an unsuspecting settler family, the soldiers billeted at their farmstead and the twenty-six “stealthy” Sioux warriors who set upon them.
The citizenry of Big Cherry is not reflected on stage, apart from Ms. Johnson (Ilasiea Gray), the clerk who arranges the meeting room and keeps the minutes. “This is a closed session where we do the people’s work,” Mayor Superba says without irony.
As Thomas Jefferson said rather unforgivingly, “The government you elect is the government you deserve.” And Letts makes clear that although we the audience may feel superior to these clowns, they are elected representatives. Their foibles, misdeeds and worse are our own to an uncomfortable degree.
Mr. Carp makes a riveting appearance late in the play, with portrayer Sandvold giving a rattling performance.
The ability of the horror genre to take on the actual horror and outrages of systemic violence has become a rich conversation in literature and even more so in film. (Check out Tananarive Due’s upcoming haint story, “The Reformatory,” or revisit George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.”) Although theater is capable of things bumping in the night and jump scares, it seems to have ceded much of that ground to cinema laden with special effects.
The founding of Big Cherry enters the play first as a comforting fable and then as a harrowing tragedy. The ability of the horror genre to address the outrages of systemic violence is a rich theme in literature and even more so in film, but not nearly enough in theater. It’s exciting that director Montour-Larson and her willing-and-so-able cast go there. With the playwright as a brilliant guide, they have carefully calibrated the demonic to maximum, damning effect.
In “The Minutes,” the path from farce to horror resembles the slow burn of the 1968 chiller “Rosemary’s Baby,” where so much of the demonic was introduced as harmless, neighborly even. Here, the innocuous or vacuous also hides a dastardly offense. To quote the Scottish play, in which Shakespeare made splendid use of the supernatural and the horror humans inflict, “Something wicked this way comes.” Oh, there may be wickedness yet to come, but so much of it resides in an unreconciled past.
Written by Tracy Letts. Directed by Christy Montour-Larson. Featuring Brian Landis Folkins, Ilasiea Gray, Kathryn Gray, William Hahn, Jim Hunt, Cajardo Lindsey, Michael McNeill, Michael Morgan, Josh Robinson, Erik Sandvold, and Karen Slack. At the Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma St., through Oct. 14. curioustheatre.org or 303-623-0524.
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