“Love can change a person the way a parent can change a baby- awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.”
– Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths you Can’t Avoid
I still don’t really know what to make of FaultLine Theater. I first became aware of the company when they landed at PianoFight and a theatre colleague of mine began regularly appearing in their shows. Between the trailer park incest, musicals about Tinder, and one show about folks who live their lives in a bubble out in the desert, I can’t really put a bead the company as a whole. Certain companies are easy to define – “Oh, I know their work. They’re the [insert ethnic/gender/religious/other cultural label] theatre company.” – but the best I can think of for FaultLine is that they’re, I dunno, off-beat?
But maybe that’s the point? Maybe they select a wildly disparate roster of scripts (not all of them good) in an attempt to blatantly reject any concrete definition of what’s “normal” for their company. After all, I can’t think of many other shows for which the box office/donation kiosk was an illuminated display of stuffed hamsters. Nor was I entirely prepared to walk into a theatre where the set is a cross between your average cramped SF apartment and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.
And if you’re going to run with this theme of bucking normality, why not go with a script for which the sole thesis is to question the very concept of normality? When an “alternative lifestyle” becomes mainstream and you can see yourself living just like everyone else, does that mean you’re no long unique? And what does nature have to say about all of this?
Mike and Dean are having a baby. Obviously, neither of them is carrying it, but they’re expecting the call from the hospital any day now. A baby means everything is going to change – everything. Between Mike’s meticulousness and Dean’s still-active dating profile, it’s quite possible the two aren’t as ready for family life as they thought. Fortunately, they’re getting in a little practice by pet-sitting a pair of hamsters.
Said hamsters are Jason and Tyson. Jason is overly optimistic and bit of a softie; Tyson is a bit more rough around the edges. Like their human guardians, the hamsters will soon be parents. Although Jason seems to have a naturally need to love the impending offspring, Tyson’s nature might not be to love them. Or Jason. Or anyone at all.
Given that FaultLine’s last show (Where All the Good Rabbits Go, which also explored human/animal relationships) featured an appearance by a live rabbit during its final scene, I was half expecting this show to feature live hamsters. This is not the case. I was disappointed at first – once you’ve opened the door to live animals on stage, there’s almost no going back – but, given what happens to the hamsters in this play, perhaps the use of plush substitutes was for the best.
It certainly doesn’t hurt Dan Giles’ script any to have plushies in place of live pets. As a cis/hetero dude, I’m hardly in any position to talk about Gay relationships from any personal experience (save for those shared with me by my Gay friends). I will, however, say that I recognize relationship foibles that pop up no matter what the orientation of those in the relationship. Breeders is about That Couple: the ones who have been together so long that a major shift was bound to happen sooner or later. Through potent quiet moments and wonderfully naturalistic dialogue, Giles’ has written a fascinating fly-on-the-wall story (well, stories) about relationships that are all too human.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that director Adam Odsess-Rubin was given a great cast with which to bring Giles’ script to life. Having worked with Sam Bertken many times, I probably can’t give him an objective written critique, but I’ll say that his performance as Dean (the one not quite ready to conform) compliments the ensemble well. Neil Higgins wonderfully captures the – for lack of a better term – “Disney-esque” optimism of Jason the hamster (complete with bowtie and green sweater-vest), as well as the world-weariness of a human character who shows up later. It’s a shame to see him bullied by Nikki Meñez’s Tyson. Though Tyson is described as the larger of the two, Meñez uses her small stature to her advantage, giving Tyson a “Napoleon Complex” reminiscent of Curly from Of Mice and Men.
I have to give a special nod to the ensemble’s final member, Ryan Hayes. As the more straightlaced Mike, many actors are tempted to fall into Dudley Do-Right clichés. Hayes does something different. There’s a scene in which Mike describes growing up, realising his sexuality, and striving for a sense of normalcy. With each new memory detail, I noticed a flash in Hayes’ eyes picturing each moment as if it had just happened. It slowly leads to an argument between Mike and Dean, made all the more crushing by monologue we just heard. It’s a great example of an actor giving a character history beyond what the dialogue exposits, and it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen this year. Kudos to Hayes and Odsess-Rubin for making that scene fly.
And I’d be remiss not to mention the crew at Odsess-Rubin’s disposal. Wes Crain’s costume choices for the humans are perfectly common, but he clearly had a lot of fun designing aforementioned Disney-esque costumes of the anthropomorphized hamsters. In addition to Jason’s bowtie, sweater-vest, and ears, Tyson is adorned in the classic bad boy girl accoutrement of a leather jacket and a neckerchief. It makes the two looks as if they’re the most rebellious cast members to ever work at Chuck E. Cheese. On a similar note, I’m kinda curious if prop designer Hannah Barnard-Henke found all of the play’s plush hamsters by winning at The Claw over and over? It took me a moment to notice that her miniature hamster caged mirrored the set proper, as designed by Max Chanowitz. I think the set could have used a door frame to properly distinguish between the living room and bedroom, but the actors make it work.
But it’s the giant hamster-cage pieces which everyone will remember: the water bottle; the fabric “wood shavings” on the bed; the rainbow-colored tubes snaking around the set; and the wheel. That circular piece at upstage-center position is an actual giant spinning hamster wheel used by Tyson. I’m not sure how they made it, but I hope Chanowitz saved the plans, because it’s a great piece of indie theatre tech.
There’s a point in the play where Dean asks a married man for advice about raising kids. “You’re gonna fuck it up,” the dad tells him, “so just lean into it.” The situation in which this question is asked is a bit… unorthodox, in terms of asking for parental advice, but that makes the advice no less poignant. The social status quo seems to change so often these days that some of us are just trying to keep up with learning the labels rather than trying to understand them. But some concerns remain the same, no matter the outward appearance. FaultLine has put on a fine show that proves some concerns are as natural as childbirth.
And that only a monster would hate Neil Patrick Harris. Seriously, who does that? He was in Starship Troopers, for Christ’s sake!
Breeders runs until 29 April at PianoFight (144 Taylor St.) in San Francisco.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.