Phillip Kan Gotanda's #5 Angry Red Drum, presented by Asian American Theater Company and currently playing its last weekend at Thick House, is accurately described by several sites as a work in which "Beckett meets Burning Man." #5 ARD doesn't employ a familiar narrative arc, nor does it give its viewers any other safety nets. Go prepared: You're on your own when it comes to meaning-making. The play comprises a handful of characters knocking about on a sand-covered set and periodically groveling before a red drum. You don't know if it's all nonsense or if it's just too darned deep.
But at the end of the day, this play really moved me. This is a terribly tragic and funny piece. (A tragicomedy, perhaps? Word.) Several times I found my body on the edge of its seat, leaning precariously over those sitting below me, laughing aloud.
The play opens as Little Drummer Boy walks through the audience, down and towards the front of the stage. She stands, looks up at us, lipsticked and smiling while she monologues about working in a bowling alley and dreaming of strange men and YouTube acclaim. "I'm almost famous," she says, "I'm almost in love." She lifts one arm as the last line is uttered, and as her prelude fades into the larger production, you see a dark shape moving out to engulf her. But then it's gone, the lights go up, and a main character, Goram, begins stumbling about in the dirt. He finds the other main character, Pick, literally beneath his feet. "You!" he cries.
"Me?" stutters Pick.
"No, you!" Goram retorts. And so on.
This is the dynamic that pulls us in. The characters tug at us two ways at once. One is an image that conjures a kind of desperate hope and the other creates a thoughtful confusion. In the program, Phillip openly writes that "his original inspiration arose from his frustration and borderline despair with the latter Bush-Cheney years." And onstage, that's raw. For instance, after Goram and Pick, we meet Backwards Soldier. And then there is Truman (True Man), who never causes a crime but is somehow always in the vicinity.
In the coming week, I will be posting Hyphen's exclusive interview with Phillip Kan Gotanda. But it just wouldn't be right if I slipped you anymore of a cheat sheet. So for now, there are three more days before #5 ARD's final showing. You know what to do.