CONTINUING THEIR MORBID explorations of depravity among poor white people, Piece of Meat Theater brings their newest gory entertainment to Nu Black Arts West Theater this month. Previous Piece of Meat excursions have been set among violent rural drug users; for Shut In, written by company members Eric Layer and Christopher Tharp, the troupe shifts their focus closer to home, setting the action among a group of young slackers living in a rundown house in a high-rent neighborhood, which could very likely be Capitol Hill. The action follows Jolie and Guy (Hilary Ketchum and Matt Ford), a young hippie couple who've just arrived in town from Fresno with $200 in their backpacks and not much of an idea how they're going to get by. They jump at the offer of a bed in the corner of the living room of a house occupied by four men, each of whom is reaching the end of his own personal tether. Neil (Stephen Hando, in brilliant slow simmer) runs the place for his lover, Francis (John Q. Smith), a former drag queen now consigned to an upstairs bedroom by his own obesity, and seen only in silhouette. The basement is occupied by Synger (Eric Layer), a career dishwasher who fancies himself a singer/songwriter, and Red (Christopher Tharp) a drug dealer who uses way too much of his own speed.

Though they focus almost exclusively on their characters' extreme flaws, the playwrights and actors combine to conceive the most realistic group of 20-something losers I've ever seen. Most '90s young adult narratives, from Reality Bites to My So-Called Life, give far too much credit to their characters' supposed sincerity and dreams, using them to balance out their shallowness and blinkered worldviews. Shut-In offers up the same traits, but at a deep discount. In this play, present actions count far more than unrealistic ambitions, and rightfully so.

But Piece of Meat is not particularly interested in realism. Their shows continually strive to hit all the extremes of vulgarity. Shut-In's creators ramp up the show's tensions until everything's falling apart at once--and that's just the end of the first act. At least a third of the cast meets a gory end in the denouement, the manners of their deaths skillfully lifted from a variety of theatrical sources, including Sweeney Todd and True West.

By that end, it's very clear that Piece of Meat is working within a mainstream theatrical tradition dating back at least as far as Aeschylus; a tradition that modern theater moved away from more than a century ago. It's great to see where they're taking that tradition.

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