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Life in Hell 

Denis Johnson's third Cassandra play is a long, dark -- and hilarious -- journey

Wednesday, Mar 5 2003
Remember Marlowe's Doctor Faustus? Mephistophilis says, "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it." He means the world itself, and that line could belong to any character in Soul of a Whore.

Denis Johnson's new play visits three mundane corners of Texas -- a Greyhound station, a hospital, and an execution chamber -- but during Act 1, we understand that the actual setting is hell. The place looks mundane enough, with a ginger ale machine and a nerdish-looking Greyhound clerk; prisoners from a local penitentiary file through, while a Texas preacher flirts with an off-duty stripper. Normal day in a bus station. Soon, though, the stripper's soul gets invaded by a gutter-mouthed demon who foresees the strange circumstances of the preacher's death. "Hear me, William Jennings Bryant Jenks," she intones in a dismal voice. "I prophesy that you shall meet your mirror. I prophesy that you shall raise the dead. I prophesy one more: That like all men William Jennings Bryant Jenks shall die, and on his death an innocent shall be killed."

From there, things get really weird. Soul of a Whore is not only the funniest play Johnson has written so far, it's also the most surreal and (in accordance with the demon's prophecy) a serious, compelling show about the death penalty.

Johnson isn't famous yet as a playwright. Most people know his novels (Angels, Already Dead) and his book of stories, Jesus' Son. He's also a poet and an occasional post-gonzo journalist. He turned to playwriting after a local troupe, Campo Santo, staged a pair of stories from Jesus' Son in 1999 (see "Poet of the Fallen World," Feb. 19). Johnson has premiered three plays with Campo Santo in the meantime, counting Whore, and they all belong to a loosely organized triptych about the Cassandra family. Here's a brief synopsis: In Hellhound on My Trail we meet William Jennings Bryant Jenks, hypocrite preacher, in a dust-up with Mark Cassandra over some cocaine. The second play, Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames, revolves around Bess Cassandra's crime of crushing her infant daughter with a car. In Soul of a Whore, Bess is on death row in a jail not far from the Greyhound station.

Johnson fans might recognize the play's Shepard-esque cast of the damned; Angels even deals with capital punishment. What makes Whore new in his body of work is that it's wildly, uproariously funny. It traffics in Texas-size grotesques, like Flannery O'Connor on Benzedrine. The prophesying stripper becomes a church lady in the second act. Her boss, or pimp, is a sleazy gambler in wide-collared pinstripes channeling a demon of his own. John Cassandra turns up at his mother's execution wheeling a huge cross, wearing a Christ-like beard and a red clown nose. Why? "When men go murdering murderers," he says, "they mock God's saving work and make a clown of Christ. That's the message. That's the statement."

Nothing here is subtle, at least not on the surface. Whore takes almost three hours and has two intermissions, but it moves like a southbound freight train. Nancy Benjamin directs her cast with such a natural sense of timing that an unsuspecting audience member would never notice that Johnson wrote every line in blank verse. The effect is a dense, language-heavy show crowded with actors in top form. Delia MacDougall plays the stripper, Masha, in a beautifully syrupy Southern voice; her final speech to the press is stunning. Catherine Castellanos is pitch-perfect as both a Texas nurse and as Bess Cassandra. Brian Keith Russell does a smooth William Jenks, and Michael Torres plays a strange and funny John Cassandra. Donald E. Lacy Jr. is nicely unstable (especially in his speeches) as an ex-con called H.T., and Cully Fredricksen, finally, is the sort of actor who could send a chill down your spine just by reading the tax code. With Johnson's lines, in both his roles, he's lethal.

The technical side is strong, too: Jim Cave's lights can suggest a pink Texas morning as well as a deep pit of hell, and James Faerron frames everything with a realistic set that includes a lethal-injection bed and an ancient soda machine that reads, "Ginger Ale tastes like love."

The play is admittedly not perfect; Acts 2 and 3 are too long, and all the characters are grotesque types. In less talented or enthusiastic hands the story could easily spin off the rails. But Johnson has found a new speed, or a new style, for his age-old theme of hell, and it's a good, rare thing to watch a modern poet write so well for the stage. "Sometimes," as Jenks the preacher says, "cain't you feel the English tongue kind of licking around inside your stomach?" Gawdamn right, sometimes you can.


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