Michael Weller’s self-described work of “surreal slapstick” is the most challenging play of the festival, and ultimately the most rewarding, the one that gets under your skin. “Challenging” in the sense that some theatergoers don’t know what to make of it (as I consoled a seatmate) as well as in the technical sense. There are preposterous overnight transformations of the five characters’ living quarters, a remote-controlled bulldozer, and a series of silly headgear worn by the generator of all this surreal slapstick, one Mr. Shimeus (Wade McCollum). Shimeus spends most of the play wearing a tiny umbrella on his head.
But to back up a bit. McMoley (no-nonsense Lou Sumrall) and his family of Shananana, Frizzby, and Zazu, a Christian rock and roll band, are living in an abandoned factory at a time in the future when civilization has nearly collapsed and cities are vaporized by accidental/intentional detonations of “weapons dumps.” Strong-armed by the local housing authority, they are required to make space for Mr. Shimeus. When we first meet him, he is an abject puddle of a man, having lost his family, property, and livelihood, bringing nothing with him but some peculiar food customs. But not for long.
Shimeus immediately establishes a border between his side of the factory floor and McMoley’s side. His command of English improves by the hour, like an infernal version of Larry Shue’s Charlie Baker; there’s something of Edward Gorey’s spheniscid doubtful guest in Shimeus. His command of technology verges on the magical. Whatever he is, his power increases daily, pushing his boundary deeper into McMoley’s turf.
McCollum’s Shimeus is a verbal shape-shifter, keening, roaring, muttering in some tongue to offstage family members who somehow have materialized—stumbling in his English at one moment then hyperarticulating the next.
Is the rise of Shimeus a parable of the westward expansion of Europeans in America? Or a parody of the Jewish relocation into Palestine (Shimeus always sets an extra place at table for missing guests)? Or a recounting of the arrival of Latter Day Saints in Utah (there is a subplot with a mysterious bundle that bears a strong resemblance to Joseph Smith’s golden plates)? Or a recap of the Cold War and the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction?
A Brechtian coda doesn’t answer the question, dismisses it altogether. But the conflict remains.
- Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
- A Welcome Guest: A Psychotic Fairy Tale, by Michael Weller, directed by Ed Herendeen
Michael Weller, in an interview for the program book, says,
… the level of discourse on my social media newsfeeds about politics is psychotic. Things have become so crazed that the attempt to actually speak quietly in the middle of it to try and unravel what’s going on isn’t nearly as strong, at least to me, as trying to yell over it more stupidly than the discourse itself. By screaming that loud and that irrationally, could you make people think, for a moment, “That’s actually what we sound like?” I gave myself permission to take that route and that’s how the play resulted.