‘Hellhound on My Trail’ is potently relevant in today’s post-Weinstein culture

Denis Johnson's surreal dramedy about power politics runs at The Theatre on King until December 16

Kelsey Gordon Powell and Matt Gilbert perform in the titular third act of "Hellhound on my Trail", a dramedy consisting of three interconnected one-act plays at The Theatre on King in downtown Peterborough until December 16. (Photo: Andy Carroll)
Kelsey Gordon Powell and Matt Gilbert perform in the titular third act of "Hellhound on my Trail", a dramedy consisting of three interconnected one-act plays at The Theatre on King in downtown Peterborough until December 16. (Photo: Andy Carroll)

And the days keeps on worryin’ me / There’s a hellhound on my trail – Robert Johnson, 1937

It’s a crowded arts scene this season with plenty of options for family-friendly holiday fun. However, if you’ve already been oversaturated by Christmas cheer and those banal Hallmark Christmas movies, director Kelsey Gordon Powell has a theatre offering that couldn’t be further away from the abundance of yuletide festivities.

From December 14th to 16th, The Theatre On King presents Denis Johnson’s thriller Hellhound on my Trail. A salacious dramaedy, Hellhound On My Trail is a stark look at corporate power struggles filled with sex scandals, victims, losers, and religious cults.

It’s a look at the modern American cesspool where people in power play fast and loose with human lives, through a surreal presentation that unfolds out like the lovechild of David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino.

To say the least, this story is everything White Christmas isn’t.

Written in 2000 by award-winning American writer Denis Johnson (who died this past May at the age of 67), Hellhound on My Trail: A Drama in Three Parts was his first play in what proved to be a long and varied literary career.

Receiving early notoriety for his novel Angels and his short-story collection Jesus’ Son, Johnson’s novels from the 1990s (Tree of Smoke and Train Dreams) were Pulitzer Prize finalists.

"Hellhound on my Trail" playwright and author Denis Johnson during a 2016 reading at Cornell University. Known for writing about desperate, down-on-their-luck characters, Johnson himself battled with alcohol and drug addiction as a young man. He died of cancer in May 2017 at the age of 67. (Photo: Cornell University)
“Hellhound on my Trail” playwright and author Denis Johnson during a 2016 reading at Cornell University. Known for writing about desperate, down-on-their-luck characters, Johnson himself battled with alcohol and drug addiction as a young man. He died of cancer in May 2017 at the age of 67. (Photo: Cornell University)

Hellhound on my Trail is an extremely cerebral and often poetic production with shards of Johnson’s own troubled life poking through the subtext. The play consists of three different one-act plays brought together under one umbrella.

While each of the three stories is a separate entity, they all link together revealing a larger interconnected plot. However, the plot doesn’t seem to be the true point of the show at all, and often the details become muddled and obscured. Instead, the point of each part is the intense power play between individuals battling for their own self-preservation.

Kelsey brings together a company of many of my favourite local performers who create a powerful and intelligent piece of theatre. But if you try too hard to understand the awkward plot, you may be in danger of missing the brilliant on-stage performances by this outstanding cast. For those searching for the story, I’ll give a few details, but it’s better to allow the story to unfold as you watch the cat-and-mouse games played by the different characters.

In an unlikely plot, something insidious has gone on within the American Ministry of Agriculture and an obscure sex scandal at a jam factory has people being thrown under buses and looking over their shoulders.

Naomi DuVall and Hilary Wear in 'An Exploration on the Colorado River'.  (Photo: Andy Carroll)
Naomi DuVall and Hilary Wear in ‘An Exploration on the Colorado River’. (Photo: Andy Carroll)

In the first act, “An Exploration of the Colorado River”, Naomi Duvall plays Marigold Cassandra, who is being interrogated by investigator Mrs. May (Hilary Wear) over a sexual harassment charge.

In the battle of wits between the two women, a sexual battle between predator and victim begins to play out in the office — potently relevant in today’s post-Weinstein culture. The audience watches a woman in power sexually manipulate and paw at another woman in a scene that grows more uncomfortable as it continues.

The obvious trust that Naomi and Hilary have in each another as they perform becomes obvious, and this first act not only sets up the story for the rest of the play, but the mood for the rest of the night. “An Exploration of the Colorado River” is uncomfortable to watch, but has many layers of surprises which creates more questions than answers as it continues. It’s a powerful piece performed by two of Peterborough’s best actresses.

The second act ,”Heads Rolling and Rolling”, features Dan Smith and newcomer Emily Eakins in what is very much a sister act to the first act. Emily’s character Kate Wendall, who has been referred to constantly in the first act, converses with shifty federal operative named Jack Toast, played by Dan.

Emily Eakins and Dan Smith in 'Heads Rolling and Rolling'.  (Photo: Andy Carroll)
Emily Eakins and Dan Smith in ‘Heads Rolling and Rolling’. (Photo: Andy Carroll)

As the pair engages in intense banter, more details of the sex scandal — and the secrets within the Ministry of Agriculture — begin to come forth. This time the power struggle seems to be for information, although there is also an unsubtle flirtation between the two characters that creates some delicious sexual tension.

For her first foray into theatre, Emily Eakins is quite good in a difficult scene filled with wordy double talk, and she finds a giving partner in Dan Smith who delivers his usual brand of solid performance. “Heads Rolling and Rolling” also features stage manager Shannon McKenzie in a small walk-on part which, in its own weird way, lends even more claustrophobic tension to the piece.

But the stand-out portion of the show is the final act, which is actually titled “Hellhound on my Trail”.

About the same length as the first two acts put together, the third act centers around a down-and-out loser named Cass (Kelsey Gordon Powell) who wakes up in a scummy hotel room with a bullet wound, a gun, a bag of cocaine, and no memories of the night before. While still trying to get his bearings, he is visited by the mysterious Salzar (Matt Gilbert) who, claiming to be an FBI agent, soon reveals that he is something completely different.

Kelsey Gordon Powell and Matt Gilbert in 'Hellhound on my Trail'.  (Photo: Andy Carroll)
Kelsey Gordon Powell and Matt Gilbert in ‘Hellhound on my Trail’. (Photo: Andy Carroll)

Soon the pair engages in an often-hilarious discussion that comes out of left field, but oddly fits into the confines of the show. Matt Gilbert becomes the audience favourite with a character who is both the straight man and the kook, much to the on-stage amusement of Kelsey’s completely unstable character.

So is Salzarr friend or foe? What happened to Cass? How does all of this connect to the first two acts? I’m not going to reveal the answers, and in the end I’m not sure if all the questions are answered. Audience members will have to fill in the blanks. But once again, the point doesn’t seem to be the plot as much as the interplay between Kelsey and Matt’s characters.

With the plot being a secondary function to this show, the intrigue is built through character dynamics, as well as the plot points that are not revealed rather than those that are. Part of what makes the show compelling is trying to complete the puzzle, only to find that there are still a few missing pieces once it’s finished. I’m reluctant to reveal more of the plot to avoid spoiling the experience of discovering these characters for yourself and coming to your own conclusion to the meaning of the show.

Hellhound on My Trail is a smart and surreal look into the lies that people in power tell and the secrets that they strive to keep. It’s a beautifully written show with an amazing cast of actors. For people looking for something beyond the usual holiday fare, taking in Hellhound on my Trail is the thing to do this weekend. You will be not be disappointed with this strange thriller — it’s a perfect show to cap off the theatre year.

Hellhound on my Trail runs from December 14th to 16th at The Theatre On King. The show starts at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7:15 p.m.) and admission is $10.

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Sam Tweedle

Since 2013, Sam Tweedle has been writing as an arts and culture journalist for kawarthaNOW, with special attention to Peterborough’s theatrical community. However, his career as an arts writer goes back further via his website Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict where Sam has interviewed some of the entertainment world’s most notable and beloved entertainers. Sam’s pop culture writing has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, The National Post, CNN.com, Filmfax Magazine and The New Yorker. You can follow Sam on Instagram at sam_tweedle_z where he posts about his four greatest loves: cats, comic books, movies, and records. Sam no longer uses Twitter because, as far as he’s concerned, it’s no longer a thing.

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