An overflow audience squeezed into Intersection’s tiny theater space in San Francisco’s Mission district last week to see Campo Santo theater company present a superb world premiere production of Denis Johnson’s first play “Hellhound on My Trail.”
Johnson is probably best known for his interlocking stories “Jesus’ Son” that were adapted into an art house film currently running in movie theaters, and featuring Billy Crudup, Dennis Hopper, Holly Hunter and Samantha Morton.
The author of six novels and five books of poetry, Johnson has also worked as a journalist for the “New Yorker,” “Esquire,” and “Rolling Stone.”
Showcased by Campo Santo in an excellent production, “Hellhound on My Trail” is a very fine piece of work by someone who may turn out to be a very important American playwright. That’s how good a play this is.
“Hellhound on My Trail” is a slowly unfolding present-day mystery that takes most of the evening to figure out. It is divided into three acts that on first glance seem unconnected to each other. Each act contains a different pair of characters.
In the first act, a young professional woman (Alexis Lezin) in a business suit plays cat-and-mouse with a Mrs. Danvers-like interrogator (Anne Darragh). At stake is some kind of scandal in a federal food inspection investigation, though it is not too clear.
The two women go back and forth, turning the tables on each other. After a while, it starts to feel like some sort of kafkaesque lesbian stand-off.
In the second act, a man (Michael Torres) and woman (Delia MacDougall) pick each other up in a hotel coffee shop. They, too, and turn out to be players in the intrigue of the first scene, but higher up on the food chain. The intrigue appears to reach the highest levels of government.
In the third act, a rowdy bad boy (Sean San Jose) wakes up in a nondescript motel room with an empty bottle of tequila and a hangover.
In the room he finds a gun, a bullet hole in his shirt, and nine ounces of cocaine. For a long time, he can’t remember anything he’s done on the bender of the last few days. A resident of Ukiah, California, he is surprised to find himself in Houston.
Later, he discusses the Dead Sea scrolls with an intruder (Brian Keith Russell) who barges into the room, and who is either an FBI agent, or a cult religious fanatic.
As “Hellhound on My Trail” evolves, there are layers within layers of the story that materialize. As we come to understand the relationships among all six characters, a larger moral story emerges.
The currencies of sexual and political intrigue in “Hellhound” are intertwined, and the relationships between the two are presented by Johnson in fresh and exciting ways.
In part, the play is about the on-going search for scapegoats, and the need to blame, in the social and political worlds. With that orientation towards conflict, it is impossible to tell who did what, and who is responsible for what.
In addition to creating an overall story, Johnson also manages to steer each of the three acts individually through its own set of mysteries, to achieve its own epiphany.
Val Hendrickson’s rich and fluid direction has given the actors in this production deep internal lives, with a lot of subtext and a lot of intriguing and mysterious reactions going on between the spoken lines.
The acting is very good from all six performers. It’s rare to find a small theater production in the Bay Area so richly performed.
Alexis Lezin gives a complex and riveting performance as the professional woman under interrogation in the first act. In the second act, Michael Torres is charming and personable, but dangerous, as federal investigator Jack Toast.
Campo Santo’s design work is strong--lights (Jim Cave), costumes (Suzanne Castillo), sound (Drew Yerys) and original score (Marcus Shelby) all work together.
James Faerron’s set is quite striking. Windows downstage left and right plunge upstage center with a highly exaggerated angle of perspective. In the first act, with the addition of well-used wooden furniture, it is an schoolish bureaucratic interrogation room. In the second act, a hotel coffee shop. In the third act, a no-frills Texas motel.
This Campo Santo/Intersection production may be the birth of a new force in American theater. Go see the play.
“Hellhound on My Trail,” runs Thursday through Sunday, and selected Wednesdays, through Aug. 20, at Intersection, 446 Valencia Street (at 15th Street), San Francisco. For tickets and information, call (415) 626-3311. Thursday performances are “pay what you can.”
Intersection is a small space, the show is not running for very long, and performances will probably sell out. If you plan to attend, make reservations.