Tone Clusters
Disjecta, 116 NE Russell, Thurs - Sat 8 pm, through October 9, $8-10

Oh, there's so much misunderstanding," remarks a flustered Emily Gulick (Fayra Teeters) in Upstart Theatre's inaugural production of Joyce Carol Oates' multimedia play Tone Clusters. Seated next to her husband, Frank (V. Spencer Page) in the midst of what seems like an episode of Frontline produced by Samuel Beckett, Emily's comment refers to how the media has portrayed her son, who has been imprisoned for the brutal rape and murder of the 14-year-old girl who lives next door.

Throughout the play--which consists of Frank and Emily's insistent defense of their son, and is mediated by a creepy, interrogative voiceover (Brian Bartley)--Emily reiterates that the media doesn't know the real him. Against a giant projection of her adult son, she swears, "Oh that isn't him," before the screen shifts to a live feed of Frank and Emily: larger-than-life, but slightly more washed out, like a pair of shlumpy Duane Hanson sculptures.

This shift seems designed to beg the question, is there anything really essential in a person's identity? Is the Gulicks' son summed up in his mother's covetous recollection of her son's "tiny baby toesÉ splashing in the bath?" Or is he more accurately described by the offstage voice's reportage of his fondness for cutting the eyes, breasts, and crotches off women in fashion magazines?

In a timbre that's one part objective investigator and one part smarmy game show host, the voice continually prompts Frank and Emily to consider their situation within a larger, philosophical context, but the two misinterpret his questions because of the intentionally narrow nature of their worldviews. For example, as the voice prods them to address the state of civilization, Emily obliviously responds by addressing the state of New Jersey.

As the Gulicks relentlessly deny their son's actions as well as the graver implications of the offstage interviewer's probing, Tone Clusters becomes about the very human need to bury problems for the practical purpose of moving on with life. The Gulicks' hopeless faith--in their son's innocence, in God and, indeed, in their own conviction--comes to represent that necessary desensitization to the things that hurt us and that we just can't fix.