The Terrible Tubers: Experimental horror play gets philosophical about our favorite roots with "Potatoes of August"

City Paper

Potatoes of August

By Sibyl Kempson

Directed by Evan Moritz

We’ve all done it: open up a dark cabinet to find a bag of forgotten potatoes sprouting weird vines in every direction. In that moment, the potato, normally thought of as a delicious starch to be cooked as tots, fries, gnocchi, or mashed-up mess, takes on a sort of sinister air. But, for most of us, this moment quickly passes, and we pick up the bag and chunk it in the trash. 

But, Sibyl Kempson, the author of “Potatoes of August,” at EMP Collective through Oct. 26, held on to that initial moment of uncanniness and meditated on the otherness of the potato, transforming this most homely of tubers into something like a zombie apocalypse or an Ebola outbreak—a source of misunderstanding, fear, and, potentially, death. 

The play centers around two couples, neighbors, whose costumes make them seem to live in some kind of medieval period (or, since current events are mentioned, at least a period in which Robin Hood has become a fashion icon). Buck (Reuben Kroiz) is a Vietnam vet, recently retired. He is a bit blustery, and aware of his power to intimidate, but also deeply attached to and afraid of losing his wife Fern (Amelia G. Carroll), who is a bit unhinged, always finding conspiracies and “meaning” even when there is none. Kroiz does a great job with Buck’s vacillation between power and weakness, but Carroll’s Fern seems too often to come out of nowhere. Her over-the-top presentation, wherein Fern seems to shout every line, is out of place for much of the play. Occasionally, it can hit the right note—as when she runs off, repeating the same, deranged lines again and again or when she rescues the others from a subterranean potato jail with a machine gun—but mostly one wonders what the director Evan Moritz was trying to accomplish with her bombast. 

The play’s other couple, Gordon (Kelvin Pittman) and Bethy (Mattie Rogers Kroiz), is a bit more nuanced. In fact, Gordon seems so polite, concerned, and decent that he comes across as almost undefined (though very likable), whereas Rogers Kroiz’s Bethy, a Cartesian-minded school teacher who seeks utter certainty in mathematics and logic, is the center of the play, representing something like order and stability, which are eroded by the arrival of the sentient potatoes, whose brains she discovers while peeling them for a stew she is making with Fern while the men are out hunting (Gordon is sort of obsessed with the “ancestors” and decides to start hunting and gathering after retirement).

All four of the play’s human characters have a difficult time with intimacy and communication and each fumbles through what seems to be a private script for dealing with the world. But these scripts are scrambled, skewed, and proliferated when their homes are invaded by sentient potatoes, played by V Lee, Connor Kizer, and Sarah Jacklin, who especially brings precisely the right level of disordered order to the tubers. The potatoes are hyperlogical, chanting formulas and proofs over one another in such a way that they become illogical, as if, almost, they are a product of Bethy’s brain. But, no, it is more as if they are the product of the interaction between all four human characters, as if, like the orchid and the wasp, the characters all somehow become one another, or bleed into one another, through the alien form of the potatoes, which are both radically of the earth and radically other, alien, invader.

I’d be surprised if Kemspon was not inspired to write the play by the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, especially their book “A Thousand Plateaus,” which espouses a philosophy of rhizomes, which “assumes very diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions, to concretion into bulbs and tubers. When rats swarm over each other. The rhizome includes the best and the worst, potato and couchgrass, or the weed.”

Got that? 

Ok, we’ll try again: “Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature . . . it has neither beginning or end but is always a middle from which it grows and which it overspills.” 

This is precisely the way that the logic of the potatoes works throughout the play, deracinating each of the characters in a different way, forcing them first to cling to their respective organizational systems, so that we ultimately see them quiver and almost collapse at their furthest reaches, just as the great potato bridge does (you’ll see).

So, we’re left with a campy philosophy horror movie, which could be supremely goofy but ends up being pretty damn good. The set, with a screen hanging at a slant as the ceiling, onto which a variety of scenes are projected, is beautiful, and the music (by Mike Iveson, Jr.) and sound design (by David Crandall, who really should get his own story by now, he’s contributed so much to the aesthetic qualities of so many plays over the past few years) are excellent. 

It’s kind of a perfect play for EMP, a space which does so much to break down all of the classifications that separate the arts, and Evan Moritz, a director deeply interested in the philosophy of the theater, is an ideal director for it. And, if I’m right about the Deleuzian inspiration, it goes further to show that the impact of “A Thousand Plateaus” is not, and was never intended to be, on other philosophers, but on artists, musicians, and playwrights. 

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