If you have recurring nightmares involving venomous serpents, Rattlesnake is a show you would do well to avoid. Or perhaps a direct confrontation with your primal fears would be therapeutic? In any event, the current offering in N.C. Stage’s Catalyst Series is about as close as you’ll get to a full-on mystical fusion with the slithery reptile.
Rattlesnake tells the story of a social misfit named Sherman Trent, who lives alone somewhere in rural West Texas, who longs rather helplessly to be a father, and who has a relationship to the locally abundant Western Diamondback Rattlesnake that can only be described as “peculiar.” Thanks to some culinary secrets imparted to him in his youth by an old black woman, Trent develops a recipe for rattlesnake meat that, believe it or not, takes him to the top of the Parisian culinary scene (that’s Paris, France, not Paris, Texas), makes him rich and famous, and finally, rewards him with fatherhood. The lesson here seems to be: Follow your bliss, and your bliss will follow. If you’re lucky, it will follow in the form of a Parisian babe whose mission in life is to make you happy.
But despite the implausibilities of plot, Rattlesnake is a remarkable work. The heart of the show — Trent’s relationship to the snakes he hunts — is visionary, mystical and finally, more than a little frightening. In other words, it’s shamanic, and one is reminded in a disturbing way of Peter Shaffer’s celebrated play Equus, of Alan Parker’s film Birdy, or of the many other modern visions of shamanic union between man and beast. By showing us just how permeable the boundary between worlds is, such works tap into the source of both nightmare and redemption. In short, this is a play with actual content.
The show is written and performed by John Hardy, an acclaimed actor, playwright, director and Artistic Associate at Abingdon, Virginia’s Barter Theatre. The man knows what he’s doing. The play is indeed a one-man show, and it is both beautifully written and beautifully acted, and at several points it rises to the kind of ritualistic intensity one does not often see, but always longs for, in contemporary theatre.
Hardy plays somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 characters on a stage consisting of nothing but a desk, a couple of chairs and a pair of small benches. The only hand prop is a clipboard. There are no costume changes. From start to finish, Hardy wears western-style jeans, boots, bel, and shirt. That’s it. With remarkable minimalism and no perceptible effort, Hardy portrays not only our eccentric protagonist, but also a college professor on the verge of nervous collapse, a feminist animal rights protestor, an ancient black woman, a Parisian culinary diva, an adoption agency supervisor and various and sundry others. And most unusual of all for a one-man-show, Hardy even plays multiple characters within a given scene.
But while virtuosic in their execution, these multi-character scenes end up being generally less effective than the moments we have with the protagonist alone. My best guess as to why this should be so is that, in the end, the virtuosity seems like virtuosity for its own sake, rather than like the best way to tell the story dramatically. When Hardy is talking to an empty chair, or (as often happens) to the upstage wall, as if someone were there, he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too. Not only is the convention difficult for the audience to accept, but more often than not it means we unfortunately don’t get to see Hardy’s eyes, and as a result, one begins to feel oddly closed off from the drama, as if watching a bizarre schizophrenic episode from a respectful distance.
But when Hardy addresses us directly, the connection is there, and the effect is profound and moving. The one exception to this rule is the character of Noni, the old black woman. In these flashback scenes, Hardy is indeed addressing an empty bench, where we are to imagine the young Trent watching Noni as she cooks, but the combination of the character’s own storytelling mode with Hardy’s remarkably humane and authentic embodiment of her makes it feel like we’re sitting there too.
It’s not every day that original theatre of this quality comes to Asheville, and we have N.C. Stage to thank for making this excellent production possible. The misfortune is that the show only ran one weekend — not a lot of time for it to find an audience here.
Rattlesnake, written and performed by John Hardy. Directed by Katy Brown.