INDULGENT AND LISTLESS The Master and his Margaritas.
Seeking the gore-porn stimulations of mutilations, leather, and fellatio to get your Halloween on? Well, Players’ Ring is offering severed fingers, wanton women with whips, and a very, very demanding master, not to mention a mordant punchline. Rolling Die Productions does it all in the spirit of the early 20th-century French horror spectacles of the Grand Guignol Theater, which gauged the success of each show by how many patrons it caused to pass out. But it’s actually the banality of its evils that’s most interesting in Serving His Master, by F. Gary Newton, directed by Todd Hunter for Rolling Die Productions at the Players’ Ring, in Portsmouth.
Serving takes us into a chronologically murky, possibly post-apocalyptic setting that combines the best of the bad old days (whippings, feudalism, family debts satisfied by the servitude of kids) with the best of today (hand-guns, iPods, cocaine). We first find the servant Harlequin (Jeff Bernhardt) at the wrong end of a whip, heavily gouged with oozing scars (make-up and effects, by Joi Smith, are impressive; and Aaron Hutto’s lighting is as usual gorgeous — creepy red and black lights coming from both above and below).
One of Harlequin’s duties is to be jester to the lord Tremoille (G. Matthew Gaskell), but not, as Tremoille bellows, his fool. Indeed, Harlequin is being punished for bringing in an insufficiently entertaining troupe of players, who did not go over well with Tremoille’s mocking friends. Banished, these players left behind the young Rosine (Danica Carlson), and now Harlequin dreams of escape with her and his mute best friend Pilot (Robin Fowler), whose tongue was cut out by the master. As Harlequin plots, Tremoille cavorts aimlessly with his dungeon-slut women (Joi Smith, Christine Penney, and Constance Witman) and orders his slave to concoct the most entertaining evening ever for him and his friends.
The pathos between Harlequin and Rosine isn’t the main thrust of the play (and could be paced more briskly in Hunter’s production). Far more interesting and nuanced is the curiously intimate relationship between servant and master, and Tremoille’s volatile desperation for ever more exciting entertainments. Tremoille is one minute poised on orgasmic verge, the next minute listless and petulant, easily steered to violence like a child steered to a new game. He also has a haunted look, a half-awareness of his own emptiness conveyed well in Gaskell’s lanky frame and heavy gaze. Even better is how genuinely baffled his Tremoille often seems by his own rages and horrific acts.
Tremoille’s friend Lord Straforel (the super and particularly sour Matthew Scofield) seems to know a lot better, and to know well enough that no novelty can stir him anymore. Wry, cynical, and hard, he takes no physical pleasure from anything offered, unlike Tremoille; his decadence is rote, scornful, and — one senses — steeped in self-loathing.
The problem with the sort of fetishistic decadence favored by Tremoille is that it works on a desensitization principle: It requires ever loftier thresholds of stimulation to hit the same high. After all, for how long and in how many ways can he — or we — we watch the three dungeon-sluts stroke and poke each other? So comes the pleasure-seeker in thrall to the eternal next thrill, a prisoner to his own urges.
It’s this weakness that gives Harlequin power over Tremoille, and it’s in this weakness that Serving His Master seems to sometimes want to implicate us, too. On the one hand, Serving delivers the shock and awe of horror and soft-core porn, but on the other it hints at the banality and self-destructive decadence of such diversions. Serving teases between embodying the genre and critiquing it; I, for one, would like to see it choose one and thrust.
Megan Grumbling can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.