Paradise has been overrun by flies. The mixture of damp putrefying brickwork and midsummer heat at the Annex theatre in Paradise in the Vault has evidently set the maggots stirring. It is as though we, the audience, are all seated inside a snow globe, except with flies swirling around us for a blizzard. Or rather, it is as though there is a range of invisible Alps hanging in the air in front of me and tiny black figures are silently skiing up and down the pistes.
“bad things happen here” is an openly libertarian play – perhaps even, whisper it, a somewhat Trumpian one – but the elephantine rage of libertarianism here treads softly and with some unexpected finesse. With no references to the internet or modern technology (something that this play shares, incidentally with Pepperdine’s “The Abode” at the Cowgate Underbelly), Marlin’s dystopia is accorded the retro ambiance of, say, Robocop. Yet “bad things happen here” could be equally set in some alternative reality in which Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 vote. The state is now legislating frantically, in a scrabble of ordinances that appear mostly to ban things and restrict ever pettier freedoms. All in all, this dystopia represents a plausible expansion rather than an active caricature of today’s technocratic politics.
There is a chanted, sing-song rhythm to the dialogue that makes “bad things happen here” sometimes sound like an instrument with only one note. Nevertheless, the true innovation of this story lies in its format. Two women (Marieta Carrero and Molly Winstead) meet in numerous, brief scenes of conversation and a lot of the play’s immediate interest is carried on the performers’ charisma. I was unable to personally map out the story, so that I could not ultimately tell how many characters the cast were playing, or how exactly they were related, but I doubt that this did anything to impair my enjoyment or understanding. In a wondrous breadth of scenarios, the characters speak of theology, politics, sex, childhood, work, and crime, interspersed with a couple of stretches into sharp horror.
There is a kind of curious metallic lightness to these scenes and vignettes, a definite playfulness that does not necessarily undermine the dread of the dystopia. I was reminded of Ray Bradbury’s novel The Martian Chronicles (1950), a similarly airy salad of sci-fi stories that is just as light and just as dark.
Once the play turns to focus on the passivity of some of its characters, it seems that it is not, in the end, attacking encroachments on liberty so much as our own political apathy. In a majestic irony, the only realistic option for the few dissidents within this Clintonesque wonderland is to flee across the border, presumably to Mexico. It remains unspecified whether the Mexicans have built a wall. The play finally makes you picture Donald Trump in Hermosillo, an orange-faced, sombrero-hatted king in exile.