Shots in the Dark

Inoculations is a mound of baloney — intensely engaging baloney

When actors put together their résumés, most choose to feature certain high-profile roles they have played, such as Hamlet or Willy Loman, Lady Macbeth or Blanche Dubois. It's safe to say very few have ever listed Dr. Radio Rooster at the top of their bio, but Nick Koesters certainly should.

Koesters is the featured performer in the second of two one-acts that make up an evening of sometimes vexing but almost always exhilarating theater called Inoculations, written by Darren O'Donnell. Now being produced by Theater Ninjas, this duo of works neatly avoids the traps of identifiable characters or plot lines, opting instead for words that spill and flow, giving you glimpses of an idea before it is snatched away by the playwright.

It would be a grave mistake to label these plays with the bland and dismissive term "experimental"; O'Donnell is not doing trial and error — he is very focused and determined in his intent. And with the muscular, witty direction supplied by Jeremy Paul, the result is a stage event you must experience to understand. Or, of course, not understand.

The first play, "Who Shot Jacques Lacan?", is staged in a smallish room where flat benches accommodate about 30 audience members. Lacan (Ryan Lucas), a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist circa 1970, is there, accompanied by Sigmund Freud on drums. But there is precious little characterization going on.

Instead, those two, along with five other actors, fling themselves onto the floor and into walls, some of which are covered with photos and pages torn out of magazines. There is some highly stylized gunplay, referring to the title, along with a constant stream of noise, repeated lines, and chaos.

If this sounds like a steaming mound of self-indulgent, sophomoric bullcrap, you're right to a certain degree. But if you just let it wash over you, Paul's staging exerts a certain hypnotic effect. Much of the lighting is carried by the actors, and they use their hand-held lamps to create shadows in the hard darkness, along with moments of stark clarity.

The drumming by Nicholas Riley, while not Freudian in any definable way, is well struck and contributes mightily to the ambiance of disconnection. There are a couple moments that linger in the memory, such as when one actor speaks the lines that another lip-synchs, and when the phrase "ego is human beings' mental illness" is intoned. But at just 25 minutes (it seems longer), "Who Shot" is a mere cacophonous bagatelle compared to what's in store.

After intermission, the audience is ushered into a different room, where a few rows of folding seats face three white walls adorned with a lectern bristling with light bulbs, a rope swing, and a stool. This is where Koesters introduces himself as Dr. Rooster in "Radio Rooster Says That's Bad," and the fun really begins.

The repetition and wordplay is still there, but Rooster is not only a lecturer. He also morphs into an eager dog, a lounge singer, and an insecure mouse with mousetrap bait issues (he laments that nobody uses cheese anymore and worries that the nutmeg in pumpkin pie bait gives him hallucinations of giant furballs). There are many elements at work here, but each is more understandable, on some level, than anything in the first play.

And it all works because Koesters is so thoroughly invested in the performance and expert at nailing each scene fragment he's called upon to execute in his half-hour monologue. As he explains the various effects of different colored lights on human beings, the stage is bathed in each particular color. And when he asks for audience participation in the form of kisses, it's so enticing that he gets them from both men and women.

Dr. Rooster turns a technical diagram into a flower on his whiteboard, then later declares that the best way to go through life is to imagine that every honk from a car is a celestial affirmation of what you're doing in your life. The short scenes are linked with blackouts, allowing Koesters to reposition himself as the next iteration of Rooster's dreamscape.

As it turns out, this is probably the finest performance this talented actor has given in recent memory. Fully in command of his space at all times, Koesters makes us laugh even as he makes us think about God and the Devil at play inside us (as he notes, our very DNA is made up of three sixes: protons, neutrons, etc.).

Director Paul employs a galaxy of different staging techniques to bring O'Donnell's material ferociously to life. These include swinging a light on a long power cord like a lariat, cutting to a recording of Koesters' voice, and many other twists. Ultraviolet light? Check. Running on a wall? Check. Throwing dog biscuits at the audience? Check.

The actors from the first play join Koesters for the last 15 minutes of "Rooster," in an attempt to merge the two works. But that unity is less important than the sum of the theatrical parts on display here. The other performers include Ray Caspio, Michael Prosen, Val Kozlenko, Darius Stubbs, and Amy Pawlukiewicz, all of whom give their all to make Paul's concept of O'Donnell's challenging theatrics resonate.

Inoculations is all about living and relating, about finding a way to live inside your own DNA while bouncing off the egos and identities of others. But it's done in such a non-linear and vigorous manner that the lessons wind up as delightfully complex and baffling as life itself.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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