In publicity materials, A Red Orchid Theatre’s newest offering, The Malignant Ampersands by ensemble member Brett Neveu, is called “hilarious and heartbreaking” and “darkly funny and unsettling.” I’m going to agree big time with the “unsettling” part. (I’ll return to the others later.) This play challenges its audience to spend time with a family that is literally falling apart—every one of them has some malignant cancer eating away at them, and one has actually lost her hands to disease—and to recognize their humanity as it breaks down.
The Ampersands, who are the last remaining descendants, as we are told several times, of a very wealthy family—this is a “very unofficial sequel” to Orson Welles’ 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons (which itself is about a family falling apart)—are, to put it mildly, a mess. Four members of this multi-generational group live together and the other two share a home not far away. They seem unsure of their exact relationships with each other, referring to each other as “my relative” rather than “brother,” “sister,” etc. Even Gabe (Travis A. Knight), the seemingly most together of them all, refers to them in vague terms like “my third relative not removed…like three generations from me but like sideways instead of upwards.”
Here he is talking to Bobbie (Jackie Seijo), who plays the here pretty much required role of outside third party, and referring to Corey (Steve Schine), who apparently is the one in charge and tries to do what he can to hold this remnant of the family together without any money or, well, anything at all. He relies on Gabe to take others like Hiker (Meighan Gerachis), the one with no hands, and West (John Judd), whom Gabe describes as “sort of my grandparent I guess”) and who spends the play spouting Q-Anon-level nonsense about “doctors (who) pretend they are they are Gods of the exam room” and “think they control the elements,” on their frequent doctor visits. Hiker lives with Jamie, whom Gabe says is “sort of like my cousin.” She describes him as the closest to death of all of them, “riddled” with seemingly every degenerative disease known to man.
There is also a much younger “relative” at the house: Summer (Emilie Maureen Hanson), who experiences auditory and visual hallucinations (probably due to a brain tumor) of a “shadow creature.” The creature (a large and ghoulish puppet created by Lolly Extract and Jabberwocky Marionettes)—which perhaps isn’t only in her mind, as Corey also sees it at one point—may derive from the family cancer (or “curse”) itself or perhaps from the “ancestors” who have all died off. Or maybe it is a shared hallucination. Whatever it is, its size alone guarantees that it will dominate the stage whenever it is a part of the scene, even when we are not hearing someone singing its creepy “refrain” about crypts and death.
In another play, Bobbie would be a “normal” person against whom we might see the “malignancy” of this family more readily, but Bobbie is not a normal person. Summer and Gabe meet Bobbie in a Starbucks, and Bobbie eventually invites Gabe to come to a party, to which Gabe—whose only recreation is driving his sick family places—agrees. It turns out that Bobbie is obsessed with pills. Any pills. Gabe even asks at one point, “Do you invite people over so they will bring you pills?” (Bobbie denies this, though it is excruciatingly obvious.)
As even Gabe—the only one who is not sick—begins to succumb to the family curse by coughing and sneezing blood, the others can sense time running out. Hiker doubles down on her demand that he visit with Jamie (Sherman Edwards). Corey worries about losing the family’s best hope, whom West calls a “savior.” West continues rambling about a vision he’s had where the whole family “must be born from the sun” and thus must return to it.
There are undeniably many horrific things about this family. Gabe does what he needs to do, but he is freaked out by Hiker’s lack of hands and he refuses even to visit Jamie, with whom he once was close. In the end, Gabe is asked to do something awful and ends up apparently being punished by whatever gods have abandoned this clutch of “relatives.” (I am not going to explain that any further.)
Neveu has a good ear for the ways in which people actually speak (as opposed to the perfect phrasing and sentence construction characters in plays usually employ). The constant stammering and repeating, though, even if it’s what we all do, becomes a device that is too apparent, as is his tendency to have characters say “Ha ha” a lot. Perhaps this latter bit is his way of reminding us that some of this is supposed to be funny to these people. After all, A Red Orchid did say that the play is “hilarious” and “darkly funny.” Unfortunately, though, despite the fact that most of it is quite obviously “dark,” there just isn’t a lot of humor in it. This is the kind of play in which I sat in the audience thinking things like, that would work better with some humor, but was unable to find it. (I was not alone in that: there were a few brief laughs among the audience members—and even from me—but far too few.)
In addition, the device of the Shadow Creature is not clear. Nor is what ultimately happens to Gabe and Jamie. Nor is the physical portrayal of West, who for some reason uses a hand truck in the same way someone else might use a walker. Nor is the fact that the script has these characters visit the Dollar Store, Walgreens, Burger King, and Starbucks…unless these are embedded advertisements. Nor is the fact that tiny bottles of Boost Energy Drink stand in for a smoothie and a bottle of wine. Nor is the entire character of Bobbie.
I wanted to like this play. I enjoy bizarre puzzles, which many ARO plays (and pretty much all Trap Door Theatre plays) are. I find it a fun challenge to take them apart and put them back together. The director, ensemble member Dado, does her best to help the audience uncover the meaning that Neveu had in mind, but in the end, unfortunately, it all feels like weirdness for weirdness’s sake, and I find I can’t in good faith recommend it.