by SOPHIE KERMAN
Testimonial theatre, particularly when created for a political purpose, is fraught with danger. Actors run the ethical risks of co-opting someone else’s story, as well as the theatrical risks of not being able to do that story justice. And then there is the challenge of avoiding heavy-handedness when it comes to the play’s political message, or, on the other hand, of getting the audience so invested in the character’s personal drama that they lose sight of the overarching issues at stake.
Isn’t it lucky that Michael Milligan does none of these things?
His one-man play, Mercy Killers – now with pick-your-price tickets at the Pillsbury House Theatre – uses the fictional character of Joe to shed light on the human consequences of a flawed health care system and, to a lesser extent, the collapse of the housing bubble. As Joe, an all-American mechanic who defines himself by “monster trucks and apple pie”, stumbles into a sparely-lit interrogation room, it is instantly clear that the audience is being placed into the role of the police officer taking his confession (and, implicitly, the judge called upon to deliver a verdict).
Rather than resting on heavy-handed theatrical devices, however, Milligan does not so much play the role of Joe as he becomes Joe, right down to his constant fidgeting and the way the muscles in his face twitch to contain his emotion. This complete transformation changes our relationship to the action on stage in some extreme, intangible ways. I heard audience members gasping and laughing in ways that sounded less like spectatorship and more like the sounds you make when you’re listening to a friend after a particularly hard day. Despite Joe’s colorful language, right-wing politics, and experiences in a trailer park, he is anything but a caricature, and this is thanks to Milligan’s rigorous research and clear theatrical training.
Milligan makes no secret of the fact that he wrote the play as a form of advocacy for a single-payer health care system. The political messages are clear as Joe tells his story, particularly when describing the measures he, his wife, and their community take to fund his wife’s battle against cancer. This isn’t a subtle play, but it is intensely human, which is Milligan’s express intent: his Author’s Note is a plea to continue our political discussions with “humor, humanity, and our hearts wide open”. The Pillsbury House helps audiences to achieve this goal by providing post-show discussion questions in the program: a smart move that I would love to see more theaters adopt.
Mercy Killers is only one hour long. That is quite enough, and (for once), I mean that as the highest compliment. Milligan’s performance is so emotionally charged and raw that an hour is all that you need. It is passionate in its attempts to squeeze Joe’s grief and outrage into a self-reliant, masculine shell; the intensity of both the acting and the play’s themes packs a serious punch into a short amount of time. As the self-made man is confronted by a merciless sociocultural machine, the political message is strong and timely – but the human implications are what knock us off our feet.
Mercy Killers, written and performed by Michael Mulligan. Produced by the Pillsubry House Theatre, April 23 – May 4, 2014, at 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55407. All tickets are Pick Your Price (regular price: $25). Information available at http://pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org/mercy-killers/.