Sunday, May 9, 2010

Skin at the Strand

On Saturday evening at the Strand Theater, Playwrights Group of Baltimore presented "Skin in the Game," an anthology of short plays written by members of the Group. Different in style, each play pivots around the phrase "Skin in the Game," apparently coined by Warren Buffet to indicate passionate investment. A packed audience at the Strand witnessed staged readings of plays ranging from the melodramatic to the romantic to the fantasist.
Exploring the current recession, John Conley's "Leopard and Parcheesi" features a bankrupt middle-class couple facing exile in their run-down Poconos cabin. Alex Hewett and Rich Espey movingly portrayed the squabbling couple. Dwight Cook's "SIG Tea" presents two bickering gay friends discussing conquests and the perils of outing in a phone call. Richard Keller and Aaron Trent wittily depicted the sparring duo. In Peter Davis's "Undertow," a ruthless businessman (Kevin Griffin Moreno) unsuccessfully attempts to bulldoze his wife (Alex Hewett) and his professional assistant (Nancy Flores). Brent Englar's humorous "Plunge" celebrates an awkward triangle (Christopher Krysztofiak, Tiffany Mowry, Elizabeth Galuardi) trying to be part of the polar bear club: a group of hearty naturists who dive into the ocean in winter. In the enigmatic "Don't Be" by Ken Greller, two mismatched friends (Alex Scally and Richard Keller) struggle with a car that keeps getting smaller and a bag of other "issues." In LaRonika Thomas's piece of social realism, "J-ROTs," a group of African-American high school students (played with intensity by Mardee Bennett, Ayesis Clay, and Aaaron Trent) debate the controversial merits of dedicating their lives to military service.
Despite the diversity of genres, this anthology of plays indicates that realism and naturalism still remain the default button of American playwriting, even the most recent.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

From Wish to Prayer

Single Carrot Theatre's lythe production of Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Tamberlake) lights up the harrowing but oddly humorous script by Sheila Callaghan. The tale of yet another dysfunctional family adds an unusual twist by turning the apartment that has witnessed the family's trauma into its own character, The Apartment (Brendan Ragan). The surviving family triangle has more than its quota of quirks. Mother Clara (Genevieve de Mahy) is a gourmet chef whose detailed dinner and even breakfast menus would make the winners of Top Chef blush. Daughter Janice (Giti Jabaily) is an 11-year old lost soul who has broken down into her private world of doll games, word games, and growling incantations. In the evening's wittiest performance, Courtney Weber plays Aunt Clara, the forlorn aunt whose life is devoted to the care of her 57 cats and stilted "girl talk" with her deranged niece. Providing further quirks are guest appearances by celebrities Justin Timberlake and Harrison Ford (both played by Elliott Rauh).
The energetic direction of Aldo Pantoja gives the production its pulsing, choreographed feel. Ragan's Apartment swings from the single rope that dominates the playing area; he leaps on ledges as he narrates the history of various tenants he has had to accommodate. Rauh complements the choreography with his athletic leaps and braggadocio imitations of the celebrities. As the play moves toward Christmas, with Clara trying to fulfill the strange Christmas list desires of Janice, the "family secret" that has caused the trauma comes into view. The father of the clan had died the previous Christmas in an accident related to the ragged apartment's rotting floors and dangerous electrical wires. A bit too neatly, Janice suddenly turns from curses to prayer as she recalls her deceased father over the votive candle her mother has given her for Christmas; Clara suddenly loses her anxiety and starts to coach her daughter on some group projects; even the aloof Aunt Barbara tries to patch up things with family by offering to move into a new apartment with them.
The script is not without its sentimentalities (cleverly disguised by its jagged structure) and the moral at the conclusion (Trust yourself; reach out; take reversal in stride) has the depth of a Hallmark card. But the energetic direction, physical gusto, and disciplined ensemble playing give the production its moving moments circling the emotions of loss as well as its dark humorous ones rooted in a family of sympathetic grotesques.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Ye Olde Casting Couch

Vagabond Players is currently presenting David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow in a taut and dynamic production. A vitriolic attack on the ethics of Hollywood, the play is Mamet's twist on that old standby for Hollywood corruption: the casting couch. A rapacious producer Bobby Gould (played by Dave Gamble), egged on by his sycophantic assistant Charlie Fox (played by Michael Leicht), places a bet on Gould's success in seducing the office's new temp Karen (played by Beverly Shannon) within twenty-four hours. The clock is also ticking because a film deal Fox is urging Gould to seal the next day could turn Fox at last into a co-producer and a wealthy man. The absurd sex-and-violence script for the deal seems to guarantee its cinematic success. But as the seduction proceeds, the hunter becomes the hunted. The determined and oddly mystical Karen manipulates Gould into endorsing her own existentialist film project and turning the conspirators Gould and Fox into violent opponents. The usual Mamet smorgasbord of obscenities, humiliation games, and physical violence rounds out the pessimistic fun.
Two actors stand out in the cast. Michael Leicht projects Fox's desperation from beginning to end. His only goal is to close the deal and rise higher in the crumbling Hollywood hierarchy. There is no other life except servile ambition for this anxious climber. Beverly Shannon gives a remarkable performance as Karen. In the first scene, the nervous temp is bewildered by her new work and apparently shocked at the office's foul language. The dewey-eyed novice seems to have walked out of a neighboring corn field. In the second scene, the object of seduction suddenly becomes the seducer. Clad in a sophisticated red Chinese blouse and tight slacks, Karen assertively recommends seduction as part of an apocalyptic world of radiation scares, failing banks, and natural catastrophes. By the third scene, dressed tightly in a black outfit and crisply barking orders to the bedazzled Gould, Karen now seems to have walked out of the Marquis de Sade's Justine. Shannon's arc of transformation of her mysterious character is the dramatic highlight of the evening. Dave Gamble provides a solid performance as the odious Gould, but the range of emotional expression seems limited. In the opening scene, his cynicism does not appears as smarmy as it could. In the closing scene, his confusion and rage seem oddly restrained.
Steve Goldklang's direction carefully builds the emotional arc of the play to its violent conclusion, even if the humor of the piece seems muted. The stark, geometric set design by Roy Steinman handsomely reduces the play to its emotional basics: plots for future deals (expressed by swaths of raw material and color) and plots for seduction (expressed by a simple leather couch).