Co-produced by Rarely Pure Theatre and The Inspired Acting Lab, James Johnson’s coming-of-age story Choking the Butterfly is about familial duty and overcoming societal expectations. It is also an elegiac call for empathy and critical awareness in the mediated age.
Teenage conjoined twins, Betty (Christina Bryson) and Barney (Ken Caughey), move from their cozy hospital bed into an abandoned button factory after surgical separation. Equipped with unending curiosity and a cello case full of milk cartons and money, the pair attempt to create a life out of a vice-ridden, technologically-dependent world only too eager to prey on their earnestness. Under the inviting glow of Corey Palmer’s swivel hooked work lights, they begin to hear their own thoughts in the silence their twin left behind.
Betty keeps on the straight and narrow, and lands a job as a viral video producer. Her boss requests footage of what he calls “freaks,” forcing her to negotiate with the term against her scarred body and her desire to no longer be her brother’s caregiver. Bryson, an exponential force, plays Betty, stoic and empowered in the face of premature adulthood. Though her character conforms to a young and professional stereotype of happiness, a struggle with the loneliness of independence simmers underneath.
Barney, on the other hand, soon keys into how he’s a parasitic twin, and rebels against his body with cocaine and White Russian cocktails for being incapable of generating the nutrients previously supplied by his sister. Caughey is at home, dishing out self-destruction and co-dependent angst, but he affords Barney dignity by never denying any of it.
The play’s embodiment of evil, Brody (Mike Hogan), is trickster-smooth with how he sways the innocent siblings. As Betty’s boss and Barney’s enabler, he owns the badass, villainous trope of beard and shaved head that towers above his already considerable build. His zealous embrace of internet fame by click-through-rate, likely cautionary during the play’s 2009 Irish debut, is axiomatic today and all the more alarming because of it.
The tension at the onset of Choking the Butterfly is about whether or not Betty and Barney will choose family and end up becoming themselves as opposed to some corrupted variation. Director Lionel Walsh does well to let them wallow in their confusion and figure it out organically with a degree of untidiness that is true to life.
Choking the Butterfly runs until June 19 at The Storefront Theatre. For more information, visit http://www.rarelypuretheatre.org/.