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Scottish Buffalo
Súgán takes a dark road in Gagarin Way

Be advised, there is no character named Ken in the play. But in the arcane, lyrically profane Northeast Scotland slang of Gagarin Way, the word "ken" — meaning to understand — pops up so often, as the characters challenge one another’s understanding, you might think someone is being addressed. Actually, in Gregory Burke’s edgy mix of Karl Marx and David Mamet, which won "First of the Firsts" at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2001 and then transferred to the Royal National Theatre and London’s West End, scoring the first-time Scottish dramatist the 2002 Critics’ Circle Most Promising Playwright award, it’s issues that are being addressed, tossed around by a losing quartet of unlikely philosophers trying to get a grip on a world gone infuriatingly, impersonally global.

The play has a testosterone-fueled American Buffalo–type plot in which two dissatisfied workers pull off an inept kidnapping of a traveling executive for the multi-national corporation on whose food chain they are at the bottom. But at its core, Burke’s perverse 95-minute comedy is about the incomprehension and rage of a region — in this case the one-time anthracite towns of County Fife, where coal mining (and communism) flowed in the lifeblood until the Thatcher government closed the mines — whose identity and tradition have been pulled out from under it, to be replaced by nowhere jobs for faceless foreign bosses.

The setting is a storage room full of boxed computer parts to which the kidnappers, one dimly anarchistic, the other just mad, have brought their trussed-up prize, planning to murder him as a "message." But the subjects randomly flung about by the play’s four characters — the disparate criminals, their deadpan if bloodied hostage, and a hapless university grad slumming as a factory security guard — are heavier than either cardboard or microchips. "I didn’t expect it to be a comedy," Burke says in his preface to the play, "but when you consider the themes which emerged while I wrote it — Marxist and Hegelian theories of history, anarchism, psychopathology, existentialism, mental illness, political terrorism, nihilism, globalization, and the crisis in masculinity — then it couldn’t really be anything else."

And funny the piece is — which makes its physically sickening, perhaps inevitable conclusion the more rattling. Like Mamet, Burke has a way of combining blundering and menace, violent shorthand and intellectual pretension, that makes for urgent absurdist comedy. And in Brendan Hughes’s Súgán Theatre Company staging, the mix of casual criminality and genuine affront is agilely pulled off, particularly in Rick Park’s Gary, a big, bewildered ox wielding a leather club and an arsenal of fiery if vague political grievances. Put him together with Ciaran Crawford’s bristling, cocky Eddie, half sitting and half doing push-ups on a metal ladder while discoursing on such far-ranging subjects as the "sticky mitts" of Jean Genet and the "fantastic option" of suicide, and you’ve got an ill-fated Molotov cocktail only half of which is itching to be thrown.

As the play opens, Eddie is engaging in amusingly heady chat with Tom (an ameliorating Rodney Raftery), the overqualified night watchman he’s bribed to look the other way while he and his mate steal computer chips. Except that’s not what agitated Eddie and thickly political Gary have on their agenda — as Tom discovers when he returns for his hat, only to find the two in custody of their unconscious bureaucratic booty, an emissary from "top brass" they had expected to be Japanese and are rattled to find is "Euro-fuckin’-pean."

But the plan, such as it is, remains in place: harangue the hostage about the sins of his employer, then snuff him. Exactly how this sends a message is something Gary, who descends from a long line of proud miner communists, hasn’t quite worked out. And the brighter but sociopathic Eddie is more interested in violent kicks than in politics. Tom just hopes to divert the fatal course of things by introducing a lively discussion of the pros and cons of Scottish devolution. And hostage Frank (a folksy yet steely Dafydd Rees), once he comes to, bears both an understated sangfroid and the real message: faceless capitalism is everywhere, unbeatable, and won’t miss him. "It canna’ mean nothing," responds the bereft Gary of the killing he thought would shake the world. It can, of course, and Eddie’s chilling advice is to forget about it and not be late for work. The factory clock reads 3:30 a.m. when the play begins, 5 a.m. at the curtain, and the underpaid heavy lifting begins at 7.

Issue Date: April 8 - 14, 2005
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