Beauty is cruel.
You catch this idea in the opening of The Liminal Playhouse’s latest production, Philip Ridley’s “The Fastest Clock in the Universe.”
As the lights come up, we see the glorious image of the fourth-fifth naked Cougar Glass (Remy Sisk), stretched under a sunlamp, beer at his side, cigarette in hand, exhaling smoke that plays in the light that is reflected in his sunglasses. Seconds in, you can already feel the coldness and spite emanating from Cougar’s steely silence, and Sisk doesn’t ease off the intensity for the length of the show.
Cougar is obsessed with his looks, lying about his age, and terrified of clocks. He embodies ably the coldness and cruelty of the borderline sociopath trope.
He’s is quickly joined by Captain Tock (Brian Hinds) nattering away at the speed of light, spinning a story of another kind of beauty and cruelty; a wounded bird that he saw slowly dying as it was teased by children.
Hinds commands the stage, as he generally does, although in “Clock” it’s a subversion of his powerful presence. Captain Tock is the weakest and most emotionally timid character of the play, the recipient of the lion’s share of Cougar’s cruelty.
Cougar and Captain are the dark heart of the play, but their black hole draws in Foxtrot Darling, Cheetah Bee and Sherbet Gravel, adeptly played by Trystan Bright-Hadley, Laurene Scalf and Megan Adair, respectively.
Foxtrot is thematically the most important here. Sexual prey of Cougar’s, Darling is an innocent and sweet kid, who sees Cougar mainly as an older brother. He’s the antithesis of Cougar and Bright-Hadley manages to pull some layers out of a character that is a one-dimensional “nice” for about 90 percent of his stage time.
Cheetah is the kooky landlady whose oddness is both endearing and a little frightening. Scalf is unafraid to dive into the weirdness, and create a vivid character that is half urban witch lady, and half the aunt you like, but who kisses you a little too hard when she’s been in the sherry.
Gravel straddles the opposites presented by Cougar and Foxtrot. She’s a former bad girl and probably a recovering drug addict, but has decided to reclaim her innocence and be “traditional.” Adair is at her best when playing oversized characters that allow her to bring her signature zeal to the stage, which she then shapes to fit the script. It is well-utilized here, a great match with Ridley’s style.
Clock premiered in 1992, and oozes its time period, ably captured by Tony Prince, a director whose assets include a strong sense of style and the ability to frame arresting images. As those were often the two chief aspects of a lot of art in the 90s, “Clock” shows off Prince’s skills in these departments.
But another aspect flying into the audience’s face is the ’90s obsession with rhetorical sneering and flirtation with a somewhat childish nihilism. Contained in Sisk’s taut body one can sense the opening synthesized beats of Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer.” In his sunglassed veneer we see the cool time altered violence of action films like the “Matrix.” In the Captain’s almost absurd interactions and obsession with stuffed birds we catch whiffs of Lynchian hyperbole.
“Beauty is cruel,” is a statement, but “Clock” wants it to be a question, perhaps a contemplation.
The end of the Cold War turned the ’90s into a decade full of abrasive mediations idly wondering if there was any true evil in the world, or if vicious hard-bodied sociopaths like Cougar were all we had left to fear.
Onstage in the ’90s, these aesthetics and questions took the form of “in-your-face” theater, a body of work emerging from the London stage, typified by works like “Clock,” shocking for their time.
Some 25 years later, post-9/11, post-recession, post-Obama, mid-Trump, what’s the value of that meditation? When shock value has been subsequently out-shocked, the bloodshed and sex becomes a footnote if they lack any other depth. In more concrete terms for Louisville audiences, what does Clock mean just a few months after we struggled with The Humana Festival’s “Evocation to Visible Appearance?”
Sure beauty is cruel …. But so are police shootings, the resurgence of Nazis and our sudden “realization” that people like Harvey Weinstein, whom we spent the ’90s applauding, is accused of spending the decade sexually assaulting women while financing that same slick pseudo-nihilism that a large portion of the literati and theatergoing crowd lapped up like poorly made highballs and so much Zima.
Maybe that’s the point. Prince, the artistic director at Liminal as well as the helmsman for this outing, usually chooses a few plays per season for Liminal that are slightly older and underproduced. He gives us the cutting edge of 20th century’s twilight, frequently with an eye toward how changing aesthetics, ideas and morality shed new light on these former enfant terribles. It’s an approach that yields rewards as we look back on a century of creations that were often as concerned with “bravery” in art as with quality in execution.
While artistic bravery and attacks on convention are the chief concern of “Clock,” we see small instances of honesty and connection that Ridley likely intended to bring a human set of interactions to the inhumane world built around Cougar and the Captain; the depth that could make this In-Your-Face-Theater stay in your heart and mind.
Hinds has most of the moments and monologues that offer “Clock” its humanity, and delivers them with an arresting stillness and honesty that is diametrically opposed to his character’s dithering and fussing. These moments hold a different beauty, beauty that is an easy target — a target that will bleed.
So, beauty is cruel …. And?
The Captain’s final interaction with Cougar ends the play with what could be question, an answer, or neither.
Whether or not Ridley and Liminal manages to add anything to the play’s central statement is going to be decided in the mind of the viewer, placing this well-produced evening in the exact in-between head space that Liminal continually chooses to inhabit.
“The Fastest Clock” in the Universe runs through June 3 at The Henry Clay, 604 South Third Street. Tickets are $20 in advance, and $22 at the door. For specific dates and times, and to purchase tickets check out Liminal’s website.