REVIEW: Desert Rats (Above the Arts Theatre) ★★★

Desert Rats

Nate Rufus Edelman wrote the first draft of his play in a damp, mouldy and windowless basement apartment in New York City. If it was mouldy, it must have been cool. The theatre was hot – “Africa hot” as one of the characters in Edelman’s play describes the motel room where most of the action is taking place. Even though London is not experiencing a real summer at the moment, the auditorium started to heat up as soon as the fans were turned off and one felt transported to the Deep South in one of Tennessee Williams’ plays. But the heat did add to the atmosphere of the production.

Desert Rats takes place in a shabby motel room outside of Barstow, California on the famous Route 66, one stop before San Bernardino, if you recall the popular song. Two petty criminals called Jesse and Frank, like the famous James brothers, are planning a great coup. Frank is going to kidnap the daughter of a rich judge and bring her to the motel where Jesse will be waiting. Jesse is not happy with the room – no air-conditioning although it is “hot, Africa hot!” – and the TV is not working. The room is so cheap that even the Bible is missing. Frank, who is in desperate need of an anger management course, has little patience with Jesse’s moaning and immediately puts him in his place: If Jesse wasn’t family he wouldn’t even be part of the plan. Jesse grumbles and Frank drives to L. A. to get the girl.

When Frank returns, the plan begins to go awry as soon as Jesse is left alone with the 18-year old cheerleader, who has about twice the brain capacity of either of the two brothers. The bored Jesse soon begins talking to the girl, who is called Amber, and reveals far more than he should, whilst Frank has driven to Barstow to finally get a signal for making the ransom call.

The focus of the story about a kidnapping gone wrong is on the relationship between Jesse (Rowan Polonski) and Amber (Josie Dunn) as Jesse naively opens up to the seemingly sympathetic girl and Amber reciprocates by telling him about her life – fictional stories or the truth? Rowan Polonski is very good as the disenfranchised Jesse who does not appear to be an evil person but feels he also deserves a place in the sun. Huw Parmenter is off-stage most of the time, which does not help him much with developing his character, who is written as rather two-dimensional. However, Parmenter’s presence is felt when he is on-stage, giving Frank a menacing, explosive and unpredictable quality. Josie Dunn convinces as the shrewd Amber who manipulates Jesse to save herself.

The play is a dark comedy with some intensely violent moments. Edelman has obviously been influenced by Tarantino. The two brothers even quote from his film Reservoir Dogs. The dialogue is a bit repetitive and clichéd but there are occasional funny quips, such as Jesse’s remark: “Pops is dead and my Barstow died with him.”

Desert Rats is part of Las Americas Above, a three-week season of plays staged by Chaskis Theatre, meant to develop the next generation of emerging artists.

Reviewed by Carolin Kopplin
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

Desert Rats is playing at the Above the Arts Theatre until 13th August