Yes, “Ghosts in the Cottonwoods,” the new production of the 15 year old play which has been retooled and is currently being staged at Theatre 80 St Marks is disturbing. Some could even call it offensive as the play tackles issues in graphic detail and is set in stark contrast with the lies we all tell each other and the lies we tell ourselves. Still, even for all the upsetting and unsettling family dynamics on display in this production there are many lighter moments for sure. The sign of a true storyteller is one who can make us laugh while still tackling larger issues. Adam Rapp has taken several far more grim subjects and kept things light and fresh. Here are some of the lighter moments from the new production of “Ghosts in the Cottonwoods.”
Pointer’s Undies: Pointer begins the play head to toe naked as his mother is sucking off leeches from his welted body. It’s not too much later revealed that Pointer wants to be a freestyle rapper. As anyone who monitors pop culture is of course aware, hip hop impresarios have to dress the part. So it’s no small bit of humor when Pointer eventually comes out dressed in clothes that his pants are oversized and his plain white boxers have the waistband showing. It’s the marker-scrawled “FUBU” and “ROCCAWEAR” on the plain white boxers which are the kicker here. We each carve out our own road in life; for Pointer if he couldn’t buy designer brand names, he did the next best thing and created his own facsimile.
Tide Bottle Whiskey: At a very tense moment, when Newt arrives on the scene his leg is cut up pretty bad. He’s just been shot and he’s trying to stitch himself up. When Newt exhausts the supply of whiskey on hand, momma goes out of the room to get a fresh reserve of her homemade whiskey. Homemade whisky which is found in a Tide bottle. Yup, they serve their homemade whiskey from laundry detergent bottles, a humorous accent to an otherwise desperate scene.
Brooklyn/Queens Stickers: It was not lost on this scribe that the location for this place was described as being in that comfortable netherworld below the tracks on the outskirts of nowhere. However on one of the centrally visible windows in this dilapidated one room home were two bumper stickers, one reading “Brooklyn” and one reading “Queens.” These stickers were placed there and were likely meant to indicate where Pointer saw his future taking him. Still, having been around the country, off the tracks, stickers like that make me take pause if for no other reason than I know that they’re not really sold anywhere besides the places they’re advertising. The mother lied about a lot of things in this play but the one thing I can’t really see her ever doing would being comfortable enough to ever travel to a place like Brooklyn or Queens to get the stickers.
Spanking with Pot: There was a lovely moment where mom and Pointer are about to come to blows. Actually it goes down that Pointer speaks out of turn and momma tells him to hand her the kitchen pot and bend over. Getting hit just once with an aluminum pot is far worse than the alternative thirty lashes with a wet noodle.
Very Smooth Cigarette Inhale: Momma makes Pointer smoke with her even though Pointer protests that his free styling skills will be adversely affected by the inhalation. So by all accounts when Pointer indeed takes that drag, this is his first inhalation of cigarette smoke ever. I remember my first puff on a stogie; it was not nearly as smooth as the one inhaled by Pointer.
Hand Crank Generator: There was a hand crank generator on the electricity in the house. Whenever Pointer would go over to turn it, the hilarity was not lost.
Everyone Was Lying: All these seeming disparate observations lead to one concrete conclusion about “Ghost in the Cottonwoods:” Everyone was lying. Pointer was lying, Mom was lying, Newt was lying, others were caught out lying, and maybe even Adam Rapp was lying. In a way you’ve got to figure there was some kind of a ruse being pulled here. If everyone is lying, who’s to say what is true
One of the central questions I’d ask of the audience is what did everyone think of this almost ritualistic ceremony to meet the brother? How did they know the brother was coming back this night as opposed to any other? Is this something which is repeated night after night? Equal parts Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepherd and uniquely his own, Adam Rapp has torn down the walls of decency and shone a bright light on every possible orifice to blind the audience to the essential truth.
I don’t mean to begrudge the dramatist; there was a wonderfully classic rhythm to the language despite the fact that much of what was being said was as contemporary as Puffy and Jay Z. For these folks, in this play, on this day, Puffy and Jay Z are about as modern as they come.