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Killer's Bar and Terminal Head explore death theme

Killer's Head and Terminal Bar

MIT Theater Arts: student theater workshops.

Killer's Head written by Sam Shepard.

Directed by Kim Mancuso.

Starring Tom Stahovich G.

Terminal Bar written by Paul Selig.

Directed by Andrew Kraft '95.

Starring Tom Stahovich G, Jeff Harings '95, Erin Lee Sousa, and Sarah Pearlman.

By Craig K. Chang
Staff Reporter

Dramas about terminal illness have appeared ever since disease ravaged its first life. They reveal the vulnerability within us all to the cruelty of disease, the imminence of death. A special humanity unfolds as death approaches. Even a mysterious disease that does its work silently, that claims the lives of those unknowing of its identity, converts once brave and perfect men to victims of desperation and disillusion.

Last weekend, the performances of Paul Selig's Terminal Bar attacked this topic by following the lives of three people who seek refuge from a mysterious "plague" in an abandoned bar in New York. They live in an era of decay and fear; every newscast over the radio mentions the "plague" that apparently resembles a number of modern sexually transmitted diseases, but especially AIDS.

The scope of this mysterious disease is wide - the three victims come from varying backgrounds. Martinelle (Erin Lee Sousa) is an experienced hooker. Dwayne (Jeff Haring) is a gay teenager outcast by his family and friends. And Holly (Sarah Pearlman) is a married woman who left her husband.

All three refuse to accept the reality of their illness, and they grapple with repressed emotions and insecure identities. Martinelle clutches onto her vision of ideal beauty in herself and in her handsome boyfriend Charlie, Dwayne hides behind the supposed shield of his youth, and Holly pretends to be pregnant to account for her sickness.

In the dark bar, the characters grow increasingly unsure of their identities among the chaos disease has brought to their world. Their narrow outlook, which had protected them from the reality of a world crumbling before their eyes, slowly disintegrates. Charlie's rotten corpse replaces Martinelle's vision of perfection. She begins to remove her make-up. The grandeur of New York city comes to remind her only of a world turned ugly.

Sousa gave a brave performance as the enchanting and cheap Martinelle, who peels away her mask of a shallow prostitute to reveal a vulnerable girl just as fearful and insecure as everyone else. Pearlman gave a remarkable performance as Holly, a quirky woman who gives up her conservative views to befriend Martinelle and Dwayne.

The play flirts with the idea of a surface world brought to inexplicable life by disease to reveal an emotionally shattered and empty existence. The bizarre lifestyles of the characters seem to reflect a predominant hunger for sex and life that is borne out of repression and the fear of dying alone.

Yet the play's motives are difficult to decipher because it toys with humor, melodrama, and bold generalizations at the same time. The play relies on a number of histrionics, on people breaking down emotionally. This state of chaos the cast illustrates well, but the play remains flawed in its disperse scope. Too often, we cannot grasp who the characters are, for the author's voice and opinions slip in between the lines. When things become difficult, Selig uses a convenient sweep of angry melodrama and a conventional aphorism to resolve the problem.

The play, though, does have its moments of tenderness. As the city becomes more and more uninhabitable, the characters seek refuge in, of course, themselves. With only a hole separating their island of hope and the death they fear, the best they can do is remain a team of survivors, despite their imminent death. Here Dwayne consoles Martinelle, finds the warm shoulder to cry on, and at last, humanity appears even amid a sea of despair.

The other program in the student theater workshop also chased this theme of human life at the brink of death. Blackness filled the room and enveloped a stark lamp over an electric chair seating a visitor of death row. This prisoner was Mazon of Sam Shepard's "Killer's Head," which gave us a glimpse into the mind of a killer about to be put to death.

As Mazon, Tom Stahovich delivered a speech from the electric chair that projected an eeriness much like every other aspect of the production. Blackness waited beside Mazon as he seemed to relive his passion for horses and for cars. The lamp shining over Stahovich as he continued his monologue illuminated a life that was already blindfolded and deemed unworthy. Long, awkward silences broke his speeches to emphasize and foreshadow the black vacuum of emptiness that was to follow.

And when still the speech continued to reveal the details that make up one man's life, the blackness returned, punctuated by the electric fizzle of the execution. This portrait of life in its final moments resonated with vitality instead of a black vacuum, with life instead of death; this irony of verve contrasting the foreshadow of death magically revealed that behind every killer is a man.