Deer begins with a long drive to the country, made even longer by the interminable monologue that Ken (David Heath) spouts in the general direction of his wife Cynthia (Christine Louise Marshall). Ken drones on about his new manuscript, which Cynthia said she would read yesterday; about how much Cynthia should take time for herself; about the last time he masturbated: “I did it for you,” he assures her. Meanwhile, Cynthia silently grips the wheel, her face gradually deepening its mien of grim, loathing exhaustion. It’s almost a relief when a deer runs in front of the car, thus inciting the unfolding of horrors that is Aaron Mark’s 2013 black comedy. Stacey Koloski directs a grippingly discomfiting production, for Mad Horse.
Faced with a bloody, yowling deer in the road, Cynthia is desperate to save it even as Ken insists, “You have to put it out of its misery.” Once they get the animal home, Mark ratchets up a scathing send-up of marriage and gender dysfunction: a needy, narcissistic, mansplaining man; a long-suffering woman whose masochistic, self-abnegating caretaking has come to fulfill something sick in herself. And, of course, a dead deer on the couch. Everything that can go wrong will.
Both Heath and Marshall do a disconcertingly good job of enacting these toxic people. Heath’s balding Ken, in his frumpy cardigan and glasses, is unrelenting in his tetchy, helpless, petulant need; his intonation is painfully perfect, that unbearable man-boy tenor of entitled whining. He’s gross, he’s tiresome, and he gives Marshall lots to hurl Cynthia against. In an emotionally and physically astute performance, Marshall performs a taut, terrifying balancing act between pathos and ugliness, as Cynthia shows her own pettiness, selfishness and even hatefulness. As Cynthia airs grievance after grievance against the doorman, her neighbors, the parents at the school where she works, her body slumps and crawls ever closer to the floor (one of many fine moments in Koloski’s bracing staging).
Whom are we rooting for here? We vomit in our mouths at Ken, we cringe from Cynthia, and even the dead deer’s innocence is corrupted as – in a nice turn on Mark’s part, and compellingly voiced by the actors – each spouse projects their own needs into an imagined, disturbingly revealing deer-voice. The point, it seems, is not to root for anyone. Rather Mark, whose other works tend toward the Grand Guignol, instead intends more of a macabre wallowing, a reveling, shock for shock, in these people’s blood-glazed horrors and repellent choices. It’s neither subtle nor especially new. It’s a grotesque, a revenge fantasy that plays out on a murky middle ground between subverting tropes and playing them for uncomfortable laughs, and the turn of its resolution can be seen coming from some distance.
But with the talented Koloski at the helm, both the performances and some super design choices lend nuance and wit to the otherwise rather heavy-handed onslaught of Mark’s script. An especially good choice involves the deer. Created by “deer designer” Bridget McAlonan, the prop could not be mistaken for a real animal. With its wrinkly brown papier-mâchéskin and its pointedly hinged limbs and neck, the deer’s lack of verisimilitude is a kind of winking, gallows-humor reminder of Cynthia and Ken’s dark absurdity. And pairing this puppet-like deer with realistic gore and grime – a lurid, glossy slick of wet red; actual dirt – complicates the genre, makes it less of a horror show and more of a meta-theatrical mind-fuck – and thus, to my mind, renders it more interesting. The deer’s design lends extra weirdness and ambivalence to already creepy imagery, as when blood-smeared Cynthia lies near-supine on the couch to “feed” the animal from a bottle, milk dribbling obscenely onto her chest. And the deer’s obviously ersatz quality means we have to navigate between our knowing distance from the scene and the emotion it suddenly stirs in us despite ourselves: As we watch bloody Cynthia hack up the papier-mâchédeer with a shovel, we’re at once horrified and taken aback at our own horror.
Despite its obvious and all-kinds-of-fucked-up dynamics around gender, marriage, sex, and motherhood, Deer is not really social critique. It shows us the horrors of repression, narcissism, and self-abnegation brought to their extremes, revels in the shit-show they set in motion, and rolls around in the muck of their casualties. By the end of the show, you might feel that you, too, have crawled around in the gore and the dirt, you might spend your own drive home feeling gross and begrimed, and you might, quite reasonably, wonder if there was a good reason for so much mess.
Deer | by Aaron Mark; directed by Stacey Koloski | Mad Horse Theatre Company, 24 Mosher Street, South Portland | Through January 27 | Thu-Sat 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm | $20-22 (25 & under pay-what-you-can 25) | www.madhorse.com