Presented by The Brown Box Theatre
Written by John Kuntz
Directed by Alex Lonati
Produced by Kyler Taustin
Atlantic Wharf, 290 Congress St., Boston
March 15, 2018 in Princess Anne, MD
University of Maryland Eastern Shore
Reviewed by Bishop C. Knight
(Boston, MA) It was a wintry evening in Boston’s Financial District and, as the audience moseyed into the lobby of an office building with wet snow piled upon our hats and coats, we found our seats to the soundtrack of bubbly theme songs from classic pre-1970s television and cinema. There were themes from Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, and that kicky rendition of the Charleston dance song as featured in It’s A Wonderful Life (1940s).
Once seated and ready for the performance, patrons sat with our four actors lounging around the small stage space in short leopard-print bathrobes. Hm? Earlier in the week, I told a pal that I was going to see a play by John Kuntz, and their heads-up was “John Kuntz? His stuff is weird but wonderful!” And yes, very immediately, with the bouncy lyrics of “The Ballad of Gilligans Island” promising a fateful trip, I knew I was in for a theatrical adventure.It turned out that the short leopard-print bathrobes are a signature of the Hotel Nepenthe, which is a dark universe where women get brutally murdered and wives kill their husbands. This entire play is filled with dark observational humor that was superbly delivered. For example, one my first eruptions of laughter was sparked by the actor Cam Torres who hopelessly mused to the Universe, “I don’t know why they even have bus schedules.” A few minutes later, a kidnapped man who was tied up in the back of a cab muttered with resignation, “Son of a bitch” – not “Help please!”; only an expletive of resignation – and such ironic levity permeated this entire 1960s themed production.
Hotel Nepenthe was a play that features different modes of transportation in several of its vignettes / multiverses, and it was a prop that was employed well. The kidnapping cab driver character (Michael Underhill) convincingly evokes the young Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, especially when he grumbles about people with the talent to make you feel bad. The actor Underhill cynically sneers, before naming this talent “pathetica.”
The Hotel Nepenthe being somewhat of a neo-noir fantasy with its themes of paranoia and revenge, it wasn’t surprising when us patrons a character that was an ambiguous approximation between the Death Reaper and the Tooth Fairy (also played by Cam Torres), who rambled about flying around on wings. When this character first came on stage, I assumed the Tooth Fairy identity, and I even jotted down “hilarious” in my notebook, thrilled at the gender-bending fantasy figure. But then the darkness of this character dawned on me, as I asked myself “But is he someone dead? A pesky cruel ghost?” And that sort of troubling twist in perspective happens constantly throughout this wonderful play.
Those who claim to protect you, turn out to be your enemy. For me, I took away from this production that maybe, just maybe naiveté of mystery is better than the sad underbelly of truth. There are women who pick up sex workers for their husbands. There are women who steal newborns. There are men who live alone and lonely, never to recover from the one who got away. And The Hotel Nepenthe can show you that, or you can choose to look at this play differently and to see just characters bravely coping, working hard to pay bills, and women who live to love others.
It’s up to you. But I certainly wouldn’t let The Hotel Nepenthe leave town without seeing it. Admission is free. GO!