The title, like everything else in Kevin Rolston's one-man play Deal With the Dragon, works on a couple of levels, with "deal" functioning as both verb and noun during an often riveting, kaleidoscopic hour examining one man's neuroses, fears, hopes, and eventually, a tenuous triumph. It's a mixture of Faust and a more sinister Harvey, with intersecting doppelgängers strained through filters of self-help and schizophrenia, with a side of comic relief and a dash of Sleeping Beauty. In lesser hands a concoction like this might be hard to swallow, but Deal With the Dragon succeeds through its combination of Rolston's sharp writing, his extraordinary ability to shift through its characters with stop-on-a-dime turns, and the unflinching way he engages in his character's self-revelations and doubts without any of the maudlin self-indulgence that often accompanies one-man shows.
Rolston performs three characters: Hunter, an artist trying to land a prestigious museum show; Brenn, Hunter's European valet, confident, underminer, nemesis, and imaginary friend since adolescence; and Gandy, another artist and flamboyant substance abuser working out his issues in AA meetings who is also Hunter's competitor for the slot at the museum. The first half goes back and forth in time, tracing the relationship between Hunter and Brenn from its beginning to the present. The two "met" when Brenn stepped in to save Hunter from humiliation at the hands of his father, only to set him up for a more public undoing. Most imaginary friends are benevolent, but Brenn certainly isn't, and watching Rolston navigate the unhealthiness of their relationship through a combination of impressive vocal and physical dexterity is one of the show's primary pleasures. It's never in doubt who's who, and both characters emerge with quick clarity.
As Hunter sweats bullets of angst about securing the museum gig, Brenn keeps the wolves of the outside world at bay with the fierceness of a dragon. The script never suggests Hunter suffers from any mental illness; instead Rolston plays it out in front of the audience, creating a delicate tightrope act that simultaneously elicits compassion and empathy while remaining humorous and avoiding sentimentality. Brenn, on the other hand, is a delightfully rendered villain who extracts Hunter's greatest ambitions and fears about who he is and what he desires, and serves them back to him, sometimes with sugar, often with poison.
A lack of sentimentality, and a sense of abandon, fuels the show's other main delight, a sudden abrupt turn which finds Rolston delivering a tour de force monologue as Gandy, set as a "pitch" at an AA meeting. For ten minutes or so, Gandy spews a stream-of-consciousness narrative that's both appallingly funny and disarmingly revealing. At this point Dragon's boundaries of identity begin to blur. Is Gandy a doppelgänger? Another nemesis? Does he even exist, or is he yet another dragon manifested in Hunter's psyche? Rolston layers these questions with intriguing ambiguity as all three characters eventually intersect, strike deals, and deal with their inner dragons. It's well worth watching Rolston in action, and credit director M. Graham Smith's hand in turning this intriguing work that originated at the SF Fringe Festival in 2014 into its compelling present version.
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