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Stalking the Bogeyman

Photo by John Marmaras

Neil Gooding Productions and New York Rep. in association with Red Line Productions presents the Australian Premiere of STALKING THE BOGEYMAN, adapted by David Holthouse and Markus Potter (additional writing by Shane Ziegler, Shane Stokes and Santino Fontana.), at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Woolloomooloo. 23 May – 23 June.

STALKING THE BOGEYMAN, began as an essay and, then, Podcast from THIS AMERICAN LIFE, written as a personal true life ‘confessional’ account, by gonzo journalist David Holtman and, with permission, developed into a play by Markus Potter, for the New York Rep, in 2014

Gonzo Journalism is a form of writing that does not claim objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the storyline via a first person narrative. It was famously used in 1970 by Hunter S. Thompson – a ‘notorious’ counter-culture writer.

As a seven year old, David Holthouse (Graeme McRae) was raped in the cellar by a teenage acquaintance with both sets of parents (Noel Hodda, Deborah Jones and Alexander Palacio and Anne Tenney), playing cribbage upstairs. David is frightened into keeping silence about this incident with threats of physical violence. He does so all of his life with resultant crippling collateral psychological damage, and a penchant for participating in dangerous acts – he is an immersive gonzo journalist. On discovering, some twenty-five years later, or so, that his ‘Bogeyman’ (Radek Jonak) is living in the same city with a family of his own with two sons, David plots to assassinate his rapist.

Explaining (justifying) the writing of this play and its production, Markus Potter says:

Bearing witness is one of the most powerful means, I think, of changing and elevating society, of asking the world to be more compassionate, more empathetic, to hear one another and put ourselves into the other person’s shoes.

Mr Potter is the father of two young children, a son (near the age of David when the crime was committed) and a younger daughter. Hearing this story on the radio hit him viscerally into taking action. He is the Artistic Director of a theatre company. ‘Let’s make a play’, is his action.

“True Crime”, in our present world, is the most popular podcast genre – has become a phenomena. “True Crime” has become a fabulous driver of viewing in our homes – on all the platforms we have for ‘streaming’ content into our very living spaces, on screens. This play, STALKING THE BOGEYMAN, on the Old Fitz stage, fits right in with this cultural mood/obsession.

It holds one in its grasp right from the beginning. It fascinates us with its morbid, ghastly details. It is a subjective experience. This production is a mesmeric observation that is handled in the living, breathing habitations of the actors under the Direction of Neil Gooding, with an unsentimental scale of energy and detail, underlining, pathetically, the relative ordinariness of it all. It could happen to any family, to any of us.

Co-incidentally, just before watching this production, I read an article in the New York Times: HOW DOSTOYEVSKY PREDICTED THE TRUE CRIME CRAZE, by Jennifer Wilson (28th May, 2018), claiming Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), a journalist/reporter and novelist, as the father of “True Crime”, culminating in two of his great novels, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (1866), which introduced us into the guilty mind of killer Rodinov Raskolnikov, and of course, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV (1880), and their collective guilt for the death of their father. Says Ms Wilson:

Dostoyevsky ultimately wanted people to feel more at ease with the concept of guilt, to embrace it as a feature of common humanity and to recognize our own complicity in the everyday acts of violence that drive people to moral transgressions (cruelty, lovelessness), to the idea of collective guilt, that everyone is guilty for everyone else.

This popular genre as we devour it today, allows us, at arms length, to indulge in the excesses of crime, its motives, its actions and its consequences with a vicarious ‘pleasure’, that when we are exhausted by it, we can leave it with the appearance of our own personal virtuousness in tact (us, exemplars of “whitened sepulchres”?) Though, one does wonder what has happened to our conscience, our own moral compasses, while requiting this need. It is a wonder – a mystery (in the medieval sense) – of our species. Where the truly fiendish, villainous, fascinate us to a vicarious ‘joy’. It can become addictive.

Friends who watched this production with me, afterwards were pleased, impressed by it all. And, so it is, for the style of writing is cosily familiar and old-fashioned in its form, in its undemanding chronological trail. It has, too, relievedly, no real moral debate, it has no philosophical demands for us to wrestle with, it is nearly all cool, clear narrative, so, easy – really easy – to ingest, to digest.

The acting, too, in this production, is terrific and re-assuring in presenting recognisable type and, who in action, never really get to demonstrate the grotesqueries of the crimes, too uncomfortably, or too unbearably for us not to be able to watch. Mr Hodda, Palacio, Ms Jones and Tenney are carefully nuanced as the respective parents and are wonderful in the adjustments they make for the ‘chorus’ of other characters they are called on to play to illustrate the story (especially, Ms Tenney as Molly, the damaged but wise drug dealer). Radek Jonak, is politely impressive as the ‘Bogeyman’ holding us to a state of repulse but yet is strangely attractive to watch, while Graeme McRae as the narrator and central figure, David – from the age of seven to the present of the narration – is restrained and brimful with an actor’s integrity and skill.

The Set Design, by Lauren Peters, creates all the locations with the right detail of naturalism, supported by the Lighting Design of Alexander Berlage, that has eschewed his usual attention making offers, to fit in to the ordinariness of the style of the work. Benjamin Freeman’s Sound Composition and Design is understated in its contribution, muted in its realistic intention.

Mr Potter, tells us in an interview featured in the Audrey Journal, on-line, that there are two endings written for this play. They have kept to the original, although, there has appeared a second essay that challenges the present ending: David’s acceptance of the status quo and that the Bogeyman’s act of rape was a once only aberration. There is intimation, however, at the start of the play, of another boy and a history that once lived in the Holthouse house in Anchorage, Alaska, that is left hanging and unresolved. Too, the level of the drug addiction and state-of-mind of David, is cursorily alluded to, and has no physical residue on the healthy look of ‘our hero’ – our visual image of our victim stays ‘heroic’.

One wishes that the play went further than its cool statement of vicarious re-telling, that it was more morally sophisticated, with the Dostoyevskian imploring, exampled in that writer’s novels and reporting,

that it is not only our task to support the innocent or wrongly convicted but also to recognize the humanity of the guilty and the shared sense of responsibility that we have for one another.

STALKING THE BOGEYMAN, is an example of a mode of digestible popular culture that glimpses into the darkness of our world and spares us the residue of the moral slime of it all. Watching it is a popular culture vicarious thrill, enthralling, but, relatively, unaffecting, except to those of my companions at the theatre that have selected to live as a deliberate comatose. Considering the recent horrendous stories of our Royal Commissions, STALKING THE BOGEYMAN more, than less, covers the same territory, and, so, ought not to be a shock, a revelation of the evil that men can do.

Then, is this play in its form and content enough?

Certainly, Mr Potter, as a father has had a jolt in his life and has been moved to re-tell this story for the theatre and share it with others. That is an action. But why does he not go further into delving the why and wherefore’s of it all? To invoke the subjective response to this story, alone, may not be enough of a satisfaction, to be a cultural weapon for challenge and change in the real world atmosphere of  the “True Crime” indulgence as entertainment.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, is still a tear in my consciousness, even though, read many years ago. And, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, is almost too monumental in its human horror to contemplate too easily or to willingly have as part of one’s self, one’s consciousness. STALKING THE BOGEYMAN is, mostly, merely, of a popular horror storytelling genre – one can take or leave it, turn it off or on.

I wish it was more.

N.B. If one was looking for further tales of caution, Neil Labutes’ IN A DARK DARK HOUSE (2007), is a challenge not yet taken up by any of our theatre companies! Does anyone dare?