The Deer House – weirdest play of the year?

If there was an Obie for Weirdest Play of the Year, “The Deer House” would win hands down. Watching it is an experience that’s almost impossible to describe, but imagine Matthew Barney in a Nordic prop warehouse surrounded by a bevy of naked dancers, who are all on drugs sent down to Earth from an alien spacecraft. Those naked dancers are under the direction of Jan Lauwers at Needcompany, a Brussels-based theatrical group he founded with Grace Ellen Barkey, who also stars in the play. “The Deer House” – the final installment of the Sad Face/Happy Face trilogy – came about when one of the dancers in the company found out her brother, a war reporter, had been killed in Kosovo; The news was broken to her in the dressing room, which serves as the opening scene.

The play is divided into two parts. Described in the simplest of terms, in Part I the performers discuss the brother’s death while they get ready to put on a play about the brother’s death, and in Part II we see the play. This synopsis leaves out the random acts of stripping, humping and butt-vibrating that pepper the first part, and all the putting-on and taking-off of various costumes and prostheses. The actors romp and play backstage while the bereaved sister mourns. Their lack of seriousness is an off-putting contrast, but at least we understand what we’re being set up to see, which, under all its bizarre layers is the bare fact that war, any war, affects us all. Surely the members of Needcompany didn’t expect to be performing a play about Kosovo years after the fact. Likewise, the war reporter’s sister (in the play) didn’t expect to be drawn into the world of a strange family living on a deer farm because of the war either. But war, as Lauwers points out, has a funny way of bringing people together as much as it tears them apart.

Granted, he chose the strangest way possible to illuminate this idea. The stage is set with little besides yellowing, rubbery deer molds of all shapes and sizes. There are molds of normal, four-legged deer as well as strange composites of legs and torsos and long, wobbly rubber antlers that are constantly being thrown about or lain upon or used as alternate means of seating. The deer house family is in the midst of planning a big, venison-heavy Christmas Eve meal when a man arrives and announces he’s killed the daughter of the family’s matriarch. Forced to choose between the woman and her daughter, he chose to spare the young girl. The man is then killed by the father of the girl, and the father is killed by his nephew, to even the score. These three dead people (the mother, father and the man) frequently come back to life to interact with the living, fall back dead again and come back to life in time for the final dance number.

If this sounds like a funny, rollicking piece of theatre, let me be clear that it is anything but. There are some inappropriate laughs throughout, but on the whole this is a challenging play to watch, not just because the subject matter revolves around death, murder and war, but because it’s set in bizarro-land where roles are interchangeable, costumes (and very beautiful ones at that) are swapped around and there are no rules or parameters for the made-up world the play is set in. You feel uncomfortable and confused – Why the rubber deers? Why the mimed fellatio? Why does she keep slamming down a yellow North Face bag? Why is her underwear still wedged up her butt? Surely, uncomfortable and confused is exactly what Lauwers wants you to feel. Even if you don’t fully understand his motives – and believe me I don’t – you’ll be hard-pressed to get the imagery out of your mind any time soon.

BAM is hosting the next three performances on October 7, 8 and 9 at the Harvey Theatre as part of their Next Wave Festival.