It never occurred to me how creepy Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" sounds given the right circumstances. Even just reading the first few lines of the song makes my skin crawl: "Hey little girl is your daddy home, did he go away and leave you all alone? I got a bad desire. Oooh, oooh, oooh, I'm on fire." Don't get me wrong, I get the sentiment behind "I'm On Fire," more or less. In his music video, Springsteen plays a blue collar car mechanic working on a rich woman's T-Bird, and she suggestively hands him the keys to her house even though she's married to a sugar daddy. In this context the lyrics don't seem as disturbing as when they stand alone. And they don't seem anywhere near as menacing as when, in the case of local playwright Shaun Gant's new play, Keepers, they are sung with even-tempered relish by a smirking, cold-blooded killer.
As with anything in the noir genre, Keepers underscores the dark underbelly of the crime world. A woman named Marlowe attempts to track down her missing husband in Sayulita, Mexico, starting with the time-share bungalow where they recently celebrated their honeymoon. We already know from the beginning that her husband, Rick, is a scumbag, liar and cheat, as soon as he first appears on stage with his lover, Kitty, and gives off a cocky attitude. It's only as the story unfolds—right about the time he's singing "I'm on Fire"—that we come to know how truly bad he is. Meanwhile, Marlowe is dealing with several characters who may or may not be on her side, including Wilcox, the next-door neighbor at the time-share, and Ernesto, a burly Mexican dude who sometimes acts like a bodyguard and, other times, seems like he's leading her into a deadly trap set by a villainous woman called "El Croc."
Characters seem to run the gamut of real to caricature. Salina Chatlain as Marlowe—whose name brings to mind Raymond Chandler's classic detective protagonist, Philip Marlowe—broods like any good noir lead, but she's also a natural about it. Despite a melodramatic plotline, Chatlain plays out each new discovery with ever-increasing alarm as if she's learning it one piece at a time. Along the same lines, Sarina Hart as Marlowe's best friend, Cricket, is easy to identify with as a real person. Hart's hilarious in the comic relief role. Even better, she adds suspense to the story: her light-hearted, oblivious personality makes the impending danger seem all the more worrisome.
On the other end of the spectrum there's Rebecca Sporman as El Croc, a deadly matriarch whose violence spans back to her childhood. Sporman plays the character with delicious coldness (like a crocodile) and she delivers one-liners with a great B-movie villain vibe. Her Spanish accent seems meticulous—to the point of distraction—but there's almost nothing about her character that doesn't feel straight out of a Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino film. That's pretty cool, to be honest, considering both of those directors dabble in a type of noir. But it makes for a clash of character types, like watching a mix between Rodriguez' highly stylized Machete and Michael Mann's dark but low key Collateral.
Several details in Keepers make it engaging beyond the characters. At various times during the play (and, in my opinion, not enough) we get to see Marlowe's glowing computer desktop and the contents of her husband's video camera projected on a screen above the set. It's a great detail, considering that any suspense movie or television crime show these days relies heavily on unseemly discoveries dug up through cell phone texts, Internet databases and digital video. As a viewer, it's always exciting to watch what the technology will reveal.
Other details include the almost constant sound of a thunderstorm, or the drip, dripping of a dank concrete room, which adds to the menacing suspense. It's only background noise, and yet it's a continual reminder that something isn't right. Live music by Lefty Lucy and guitarist Ron Meissner creates an atmosphere of intrigue and dread with renditions of songs by Talking Heads, Lou Reed and originals written by Gant.
Like so many noir stories before it, Keepers is sometimes convoluted with all its twists and turns, all its big reveals that link the main characters to one huge conspiracy. At times, in fact, it's hard to follow exactly what is being revealed. I was, however, on the edge of my seat by the time the second act rolled around. Gant's dialog incorporates comedy, allusion, strange imagery and all the elements that keep a person engaged in a story, and director Kaet Morris does a phenomenal job with pacing the drama. The real thrill of a good action story like this lies somewhere between getting the formula right and adding fresh details that make the genre new, and Keepers hits that target.
Keepers continues at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, Nov. 11, through Saturday, Nov. 13, at 8 PM nightly. $13.