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Theater review: ‘The Woodpecker’ at Studio/Stage Theatre

March 10, 2011 |  6:42 pm

Woodpecker - 1 The opening image of its protagonist vomiting into a trash can pretty much says it all; after that, the rest of the Mutineer Theatre Company production of “The Woodpecker” seems almost redundant.

Like so many new plays aspiring to edginess, Samuel Brett Williams’ relentlessly unpleasant drama wallows in physical and mental suffering, with neither the uniqueness of vision nor the mastery of language to leave much of value in its wake.

Williams sets out to draw a connection between the damaged psyches in a backwoods Arkansas family and the human rights abuses in the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Metaphorically linking the two is the fate of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a possibly extinct  species whose rumored sightings fuel holy grail-type obsessions among North American birdwatchers. 

A lone specimen has fallen under the care of Jimmy (Brian Norris), a young Army recruit on the eve of combat duty deployment. Jimmy’s facial disfigurement from a bear attack mirrors the psychological scars inflicted by his embittered, wheelchair-bound father (Mark Withers) and bug-eyed, painkiller-popping mom (Tamara Zook).

In Jon Cohn’s raw staging, Withers and Zook mine vivid performances peppered with mordant humor from these trailer park stereotypes, though Norris' Mayberry-esque naivete wears thin fast. The piece loses its way with a change of scene to the war zone, where Jimmy is assigned to assist an over-the-top sociopathic corporal (Andrew Price) in the preparation of a hapless hooded prisoner (Ryan Nealy) for interrogation, with predictable results.

The visceral impact of depicting horrific abuse onstage becomes marginalized when the behavior is attributed to personalities that are so grotesquely outside the norm. If only it were that simple.

–- Philip Brandes

“The Woodpecker,” Studio/Stage Theatre, 520 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 3. $20. (323) 871-5826 or Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Photo: Brian Norris, Tamara Zook and Mark Withers. Credit: Amber Hamilton.