Clubbed Thumb is where you go for a walk on the wild side. This experimental house has been commissioning, developing, and presenting “funny, strange and provocative” new work since 1996, and when they’re cooking they produce something really cool, like Sheila Callaghan’s “Roadkill Confidential.” Calling itself a “noir-ish meditation on brutality,” this multi-media spectacle — more art installation than straightforward drama — ransacks familiar pop-cultural genre conventions to deliver a smart and stylish cautionary tale of an artist who gets caught up in the savagery of her own art.
Somewhere in upstate New York, a reclusive artist named Trevor (played with chilly ferocity by Rebecca Henderson) is driving on back roads, reflecting on her next, unnamed project (“She only knew it was to be brutal”), when she accidentally hits and kills a bunny — one of those bad bunnies that have been infecting the locals with some hideous disease worthy of a made-for-TV movie on the SyFy network.
Inspiration strikes, and within months Trevor has produced a work of art that, with good reason, she keeps hidden behind plastic tarps — a source of great interest to those rare visitors who find their way to her studio. That would include one irritating young lover (played with a fine repertoire of twitches by Alex Anfanger) who is turned on by the “brutal intimacy” of her dark art, and pretty, gabby Melanie (pretty, perky Polly Lee), a nosy neighbor. (“You are a stunning conversationalist,” Trevor tells her, with withering contempt.)
Director Kip Fagan (who also helmed Callaghan’s “Recess” and “That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play”) keeps a firm grip on the arch tone and ironic performance style of this slick production — even as he maintains a high level of suspense around Trevor’s mysterious art work. Ominous music and jarring lighting effects also help to establish the mood.
But while Trevor’s installations of roadkill art are kept hidden, the incidents of violence that inspired them are lavishly represented on Peter Ksander’s split-level, eerily all-white set. Banks of TV screens face the audience on two sides of the cube-like stage, reflecting the scenes that keep Trevor glued to her own TV: “Friendly Fire; Roadside Explosives; Mortar Rounds; Drive Bys; the Ethnic Cleanse; Checkpoint Fuckyou.”
The person who is most interested in Trevor and her upsetting art is the creepy FBI Man (played with consummate black humor by the invaluable Danny Mastrogiorgio) who has been obsessively tracking her every move. Although FBI guy’s ostensible mission is to discover whether Trevor’s roadkill project involves any lethal biological weaponry, this crazed federale confesses to a personal interest in his assignment.
“I have questions,” he says, “about human nature, about the desire to kill, about myself.”
Well-put and to the point, that is precisely the issue that Callaghan raises. An issue that, for all her clever verbal riffs, she leaves unsatisfyingly unresolved. Does our violent culture de-sensitize us to human suffering? Does brutal art merely reflect that culture? Or does it perpetuate the violence it depicts? And what about Trevor? Has she really shocked us into acknowledging our own savagery? Or has she only succeeding in desensitizing herself?
Fun is fun — and “Roadkill Confidential” is certainly fun — but it ends with self-congratulatory flourish that it hasn’t really earned.