Led Zeppelin’s frontman and vocalist Robert Plant is frequently cited as one of the most brilliant but perplexing lyricists in rock history, and with good reason.
Even putting aside the fact that Plant’s piercing voice often renders his lyrics unintelligible, the nuance and complexity alone can make them difficult to comprehend.
“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now. It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.” That Zeppelin line, from “Stairway to Heaven,” is a topic of much controversy in Bruce Walsh’s “Berserker.”
“Berserker” is one of the two plays produced as part of the IU Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance department’s 2016 “At First Sight” series. “At First Sight” is an annual repertory of plays by the students of IU’s MFA Playwriting program.
“Berserker,” unlike most plays in IU Theatre’s mainstage seasons, is presented in the Studio Theatre, an intimate upstairs space in the Lee Norvelle Center. Mauricio Miranda’s “Occupants,” the other half of “At First Sight,” plays in the Wells-Metz Theatre through this weekend.
A black bear is chasing Pete Greer (the protagonist of “Berserker”) through the forest of southwestern Virginia when Pete cuts through a fence to find himself faced with a talking and singing birdhouse.
Pete strikes up a conversation with the security guard (who introduces herself as Dana) on the other side of the CCTV camera concealed in the birdhouse. Dana’s rendition of Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” though she did not intend it to be heard, immediately identifies her to Pete as a fellow Led-head. The two oddly but surely hit it off.
Dana works security for LeiberCraft Partners Limited, a corporate technology firm. Except Dana isn’t her real name and security isn’t her real job. Her name is Soojin, and she is an executive at LeiberCraft.
Soojin reveals that she was on the other end of Pete’s mysterious talking birdhouse encounter while interviewing him for a position as a reading specialist at LeiberCraft. His occupation at that time is teaching elementary school.
Why does a tech corporation that produces online multiplayer gaming platforms need a reading specialist? The 12-year-old founder is struggling to pass the state-administered reading assessment.
As Pete becomes wrapped up in the strange world of LeiberCraft, his growing infatuation with Dana disrupts his life at home with his daughter and his longtime partner, Abby, (who, as Pete frequently reminds us, is not technically his wife).
As outlandish as “Berserker” may sound, the play has a fairly realistic, grounded feel to it. It’s a tragicomic romp through the wilderness of Pete Greer’s psychology.
Walsh collaborates with director David Koté on this development production. The production’s four actors convincingly realize Walsh’s puzzling characters.
A frazzled and frenetic Nicholas Jenkins stars as Pete Greer. Pete is a character so complex and unpredictable that we constantly struggle to pin down exactly who he is. Jenkins leads the audience through repeated trials of thinking we’ve gotten to know Pete and subsequently being disproven (like when he tries meth, for example). Meadow Nguy plays Soojin with control and patience, though the fury abounds when she does erupt. Abby Lee is hilarious and natural in the role of Abby, Pete’s wife-but-not-really. Mason, the obscenity-spewing tween figurehead of LeiberCraft, is played by Marisa Eason. Eason embodies both Mason’s gigantic ego and his childish authenticity with thoroughly entertaining results.
In light of Pete and Soojin’s shared love of Led Zeppelin, the band’s music is at the heart of the play. Both characters agree that verse in “Stairway to Heaven” about the “spring clean for the May queen” is gibberish. But the temptation to analyze never subsides.
That search for meaning among chaos is representative of Pete Greer’s journey in “Berserker.”
As intricate and enigmatic as the play is, “Berserker” should not be regarded as a challenge. The play is fundamentally an engaging romance with an eclectic sense of humor.
Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times. See the original review here.