With their double feature, On the Edge, Defunkt Theatre isn't messing around. The production links two historic one-act plays—1964's Dutchman by Amiri Baraka and 1916's Trifles by Susan Glaspell—that directly confront racism, gender roles and violence.
First is Trifles, which portrays the battle between the sexes. When the men of a town begin to investigate a murder a strange woman is suspected of committing, two women (Elizabeth Jackson and Paige McKinney) decide to gather their own clues.
It opens in a vague setting: wood paneling, a large metal garbage can, some mismatched furniture. The women wear hoop-skirt frames over steampunky outfits. Mr. Henderson (James Dixon), Mr. Hale (Jess Ford) and Mr. Peters (Michael Jordan) constantly belittle the women with gender stereotypes: Women are supposed to be housekeepers, men should have all the power, women aren't smart enough to be detectives.
Neither party discusses its theories when the opposite sex is present, and the men don't seem particularly interested in hearing what the women have to say. There are several moments when the male characters cut off the women midsentence. "Women are used to worrying over trifles," Mr. Hale laughs.
Post-intermission, Dutchman continues to hit hard with social imbalance. Among old van seats that symbolize a train car, Lula (Jackson) provocatively introduces herself to Clay (Dixon) in an attempt to "screw." Her thin veil of innocence becomes even thinner as Lula, a white woman, makes suggestive racial remarks to Clay, a black man. The audience becomes like the other passengers on the train: silently watching and unable to avert the quickly escalating argument that takes place. The power dynamics are clear: "I lie a lot," Lula says to Clay. "It helps me control the world." That control is passed back and forth between Lula and Clay, and even to the silent train passengers, who capture the incident on their cellphones when it reaches its chilling ending.
On the Edge may not leave you literally on the edge of your seat, but considering neither play resolves its tensions, it doesn't exactly leave you at ease. Still, it's not all bleak: It reminds you the theater has long been a space to deal with social justice issues, at a time when those kinds of spaces feel particularly precious. MORIAH NEWMAN.
SEE IT: On the Edge plays at Defunkt Theatre, 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd., defunktheatre.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Sunday, through Mar. 18. No show Sunday, Feb. 26. $10-$25.