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Attention, Shoppers 

Denis Johnson's latest play takes us halfway to hell

Wednesday, Aug 22 2001
Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames might sound like something by Don DeLillo in a self-recycling mood, but in fact it's the name of Denis Johnson's new play, lifted from a line in his last one, Hellhound on My Trail. Johnson is a novelist and poet who's taken to scriptwriting and who likes to premiere his plays at Intersection for the Arts. Hellhound, produced last year, was a triptych of related one-acts about the Cassandra family. There was Marigold, on leave from the Department of Agriculture after an alleged sex scandal, and her brother Mark, a drifter framed in a shitbag motel for possession. What linked their stories wasn't immediately clear, but Shoppers has them both returning to an eccentric household in Ukiah, Calif., where the TV talks to people about the past and their brother's ex-wife marries some nerd in the living room.

Shoppers is not only better than Hellhound; it improves the first play by adding context. Hellhound felt like a game, a puzzle of plot points and funny lines without much emotional charge, but Shoppers gathers the stray details into a quirky family drama. Mark Cassandra, after "a strange journey through the desert wastes," comes home to sober up. He finds his semiretired dad (Oliver Wendell "Homes" Cassandra, played by Michael Torres) and his batty, Bible-thumping grandma (a brilliant Helen Shumaker) talking at cross-purposes over the yipping of a 20-year-old Chihuahua. Later his burnout brother ("Bro") turns up, reminds Mark of a buried family tragedy, and tempts him back to alcohol. His sister Marigold also comes home, looking oddly well adjusted compared to the rest of her family; the reason she isn't fucked up turns out to be simple. The play's characters and landscape should remind Johnson fans of the Mendocino towns and types in his novel Already Dead; they'll remind other people of Sam Shepard, a comparison Johnson must be sick of hearing.

Shoppers doesn't resolve Hellhound: It seems to be part two of a trilogy. Marigold's scandal at the Department of Agriculture is never explained, and the news item about shoppers burning in a mall fire still feels like a tease. Intersection and the Campo Santo cast are already working on Johnson's third play, and this thin evidence is frankly all I have for believing the shows are connected. But I'll give Johnson the benefit of the doubt, because Shoppers leaves too many loose ends to work as a Cassandra finale.

Three characters here give the show life: Grandma, Bro, and a mentally retarded woman named Marcy. Grandma wears a headkerchief and a limp, powder-blue robe; she's dowdy but tough and reels off crazy digressions in a coiled Texas accent. (The family lived in Texas before landing in Ukiah.) "Golf is so silly it makes my skin to crawl!" she says. "It makes me ashamed and embarrassed just to think about golf. I wonder: Did God Almighty invent golf to drive people away from television so we'd spend Sunday afternoons with the Holy Bible?" Helen Shumaker finds the right pitch (between satire and sympathy) to make Grandma's hidebound jeremiads almost charming.

Luis Saguar is also excellent as the long-haired, and ostracized, Bro, or Luke Cassandra, who reintroduces his brother to the family's past. With some help from the talkative television he recounts what their psychotic, now-dead mother did some 25 years before, and says: "She did. So dad's depressed. And we're fucked up." He sits on the couch. "I don't mind it," he adds. "I enjoy it." Saguar makes Bro seem hungry, desperate, lazy, and wired. He's an unsteady bum with his own secret -- the retarded woman, Marcy -- who comes flouncing out of the closet in Act 2.

Sean San Jose as Mark Cassandra and Michael Torres as his father play with their usual agility, but fail to stretch; if you've seen Campo Santo perform, you've seen Torres and San Jose in similar roles. The actor who does stretch is Catherine Castellanos, as Marcy. She turns up in blue and gold makeup, a rag dress, and sparkling sequins -- "Gloried up like a Hindu," as Grandma puts it -- and confuses the family with giddy chatter about a Fantasia Fair before Bro has to admit who she is. Castellanos plays Marcy in a crass, girlish, excitable voice that makes her sudden fate potent as well as sad.

I should also mention that Brian Keith Williams, who played a talking tractor last year in Word for Word's adaptation of an Annie Proulx story, does witty work as the TV. Alexis Lezin is also sharp as Marigold. But the surprise wedding in the Cassandra living room between two other characters, Bro's ex-wife Suzanne and her boyfriend (played by Lisa Joffrey and John Polak, respectively), is flatly performed, a blister on the show's already warping plot.

The best part of Shoppers is that Johnson seems to be up to something. It ends with an oddly beautiful speech from Bro, which points toward another show that promises -- from all the murky indicators -- to be a peculiarly American vision of hell.


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