Thomas Jay Ryan and Christina Rouner in
Tom Ryan Thinks He's James Mason...
(© Jill Steinberg)
Thomas Jay Ryan and Christina Rouner in
Tom Ryan Thinks He's James Mason...
(© Jill Steinberg)
Experimental director Daniel Fish calls his latest creation, Tom Ryan Thinks He's James Mason Starring in a Movie By Nicholas Ray in which a Man's Illness Provides an Escape from the Pain, Pressure and Loneliness of Trying to be the Ultimate American Father, Only to Drive Him Further Into the More Thrilling Though Possibly Lonelier Roles of Addict and Misunderstood Visionary, now premiering at St. Mark's Church as part of the Incubator Arts Project's Other Forces festival, an "x-ray" of the dark and disturbing 1956 Nicholas Ray film Bigger Than Life. It's an apt and succinct description of his stark, tense deconstruction of that controversial movie.

In Ray's film, James Mason plays a middle-class American father prescribed cortisone pills after he's stricken with a deadly disease. He appears to make a full recovery, but when he takes to popping them as if they were Tic Tacs (which in this production they actually are), he becomes an angry, psychotic brute who terrorizes his wife and young son.

Fish, who has directed plays by Charles Mee and Sheila Callaghan, shreds the Hollywood realism in favor of a more primitive abstract approach. Peter Ksander's narrow gray set stands in for a movie soundstage, and when his lighting dims, it shrouds the actors in shadows. Like Ray's film, Fish uses his adaptation for societal commentary, in this case on the savagery and insanity of heroic aspirations taken to extremes.

The terrifically intrepid and dynamic Thomas Jay Ryan and Christina Rouner toss themselves into this physically and emotionally grueling fray with equal doses of abandon and restraint, not only playing all the characters in the movie, but injecting contemporary references, as they switch off between the same character or take on more than one at once. It gives the proceedings a schizophrenic sensibility that's heightened by the staging, which reflects the characters' inner states instead of outward actions. At various points, Ryan and Rouner sit slouched against the wall; they dance together when their characters are shopping -- and instead of passing him a pitcher of milk, she drenches him in it.

Fish may not entirely achieve his goal of illuminating the struggles of a country, as much as a family, spiraling out of control. And seeing the show without at least some knowledge of the source material might be a mistake. But this manic 80-minute blitz is taut and provocative as it straddles Richard Foreman and Ivo van Hove on the avant-garde landscape.