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Senior Valerie Muensterman’s ‘The Roadkill Club’ explores a poetic underworld

<p>“The Roadkill Club” is the culmination of months of work for senior Valerie Muensterman, who double majors in English and theater studies.</p>

“The Roadkill Club” is the culmination of months of work for senior Valerie Muensterman, who double majors in English and theater studies.

The world of “The Roadkill Club” is not quite like our own. On a surface level, it’s familiar: The setting is a house in the country, somewhere in the United States, and the characters speak in country accents about things like flowers, neighbors and lost relatives. But something about what they say, and how they act, feels off.

Roy, a spunky 17 year old, jumps around and shouts like a child in between precocious, poetic ramblings. Mack Grimm, a rugged ne’er-do-well teen boy who supposedly lives under a bridge, enters the play munching on a whole cucumber. Nan, Roy’s motherly older sister, wages a war with deer over flowers that may or may not be plastic. Meanwhile, Dusty, Nan’s love interest, isn’t fazed when she grovels on the ground, mimicking a stinky possum.

As if that isn’t absurd enough, there’s more: A mysterious man occasionally emerges from the shadows behind the set, either to simply watch the action unfolding or to play spaghetti western guitar riffs. Is he a character, or just a transitional device? Is he alive, dead or a symbol of the character’s latent anxieties? It’s not always clear. 

And that’s just what Valerie Muensterman, a Duke senior and the author of the play, intended: “I didn’t want at the end of [the play] to have a lesson at the top of this scaffolding of plot,” Muensterman said. “I wanted to ask questions.”

“The Roadkill Club,” which was performed at the Bryan Center Sheafer Theater from Feb. 28 to March 1, is the culmination of months of work for Muensterman. An English and Theater Studies double major, she began writing the play during the Fall 2019 semester with the help of theater studies professor and playwright Neal Bell. Over the course of the school year, the script changed dramatically, especially as Muensterman workshopped with actors and director Jody McAuliffe — who is also a theater studies professor — in the spring. 

In the “final” version of the play (it’s still subject to change before Muensterman submits it as her creative writing senior thesis), Roy, Nan, Dusty and Mack interact in witty, dialogue-filled vignettes, while the memory of a mother and father’s deaths looms over their absurd exchanges. Tension rises between the main characters while the mysterious man in the background grows more and more menacing. When the play climaxes with deer \’(men in deer masks) dancing around Nan and ruining her flowers, it becomes clear that something bizarre — and sinister — is at stake.

Muensterman pointed to author Flannery O’Connor and playwright Sam Shepard as inspirations for this dark comedy tinged with southern gothic aesthetics and poetic language. In fact, Muensterman compared the whole structure of the play to a poem. While she wrote the play with a theme in mind — how people use comedy to deal with grief — she’s happy that audience members have extracted their own meanings from it.

“This play works similarly [to poetry],” she said. “It’s not completely random images, but there are jumps for the audience to make, and I think it’s very personal what you draw out of it.”

Muensterman noted that each individual, and each audience as a whole, received the play in different ways. She found it amusing that one moment — in which Mack, for an extended period of time, ravenously and exaggeratedly gobbles a pack of baloney — played to laughter in the first two performances and relative silence to the last.

“I think people on Sunday treated it like, ‘Wow, this is a serious moment!’” Muensterman said. “Which was really funny to me, because I thought it was just objectively silly. But that’s just the test of [the play], too — different crowds of people will find something different in each thing.”

In August, the cast and crew of “The Roadkill Club” will travel to Scotland to perform the play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. There, the play will open up once again to new interpretations. While the play’s mixture of tragic backstories, heightened language and “low” humor will certainly confuse or unsettle some and hit deeply for others, that’s exactly what makes it special. “The Roadkill Club” defies convention and masterfully weaves its contradictions into one big, beautifully messy poem you can’t look away from. After all, what could be more entertaining than a flustered flower-lover fighting off prancing deer-masked men?

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