Monday, June 28, 2010

Global Crunch Comes Home

At Fells Point Corner Theater, Kathleen Barber's In the Shadow of Lushan skillfully turns the political turmoil of globalization into the personal crisis of one woman. Jo-Jo Banaker (Peggy Dorsey) valiantly defends her family-owned company against the conniving efforts of Caz (Mark Scharf), director of a rival company, to take over Banaker's by financial manipulations.
The battle between Jo-Jo and Caz inflames the entire staff of the tottering company. Chic (Richard Peck), the genial foreman, worries about the future of a middle-aged man who knows only the informal mom-and-pop environment of Banaker's. Frannie (Peggy Friedman), the faithful employee, cringes at the low-paying, low-skills job that await her if the company folds. Bobby (Vic Cheswick, Jr.) blames the company's turmoil on job-stealing immigrants, too visibly represented by a new mysterious worker, the Mexican Mateo (Michael Zemarel). As the business confrontation between Jo-Jo and Caz defrosts into chapters of romance, stalemate, and mutual admiration, the relationship among the employees deteriorates into mutual suspicion and desperate scapegoating. The opening company fun, where employees mock Japanese business "shame circles," turns into an angry knife assault.
The solid cast successfully gives the turmoil of globalization a human face. Foreign competition, price wars, illegal immigration, aging industries, and "Bidding Olympics" flow off the stage as the words and gestures of the increasingly angry and exhausted workers. At the center of the meltdown, Peggy Dorsey ably presents the charm of a successful executive comfortable in working in an old-fashioned family mode but uncertain in the cutthroat politics of the new world market. Slipping abruptly from adversarial to romantic partner, Mark Scharf is a sharp, sandpaperish foil to Dorsey's more maternal persona. Vic Cheswick is especially strong as the charming Bobby, who quickly turns from fun and games to xenophobia and attempted murder.
Josh Bristol's direction of the piece is serviceable, but the multiple exits and entrances seem interchangeable. The actors are often frozen into awkward positions, as when George (E. Martin Early) speaks into the back of Jo-Jo. The movements in the sudden romance scene and the sudden knife attack seem stilted. The nondescript set conveys the gray, metallic nature of the factory (and of the gloomy world economy looming just beyond the door), but its drabness only accentuates the halting character of the player's movements.
Barber's play marks a promising beginning for this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Global economic conflict becomes intimate family anguish.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Thin Satire

Will Eno's Tragedy; tragedy is a compact satire on American television news. But even at seventy minutes in running length, the play becomes one weary joke.
The comedy's news team must wrestle with an astonishing piece of non-news: The sun has set and it is night. The avuncular anchorman (coolly played by Rich Espey) attempts to tease some news out of his clueless news team. Constance (Jessica Garrett in an offbeat performance) tries to drum up some local interest in reaction to the news, but there is little more to report than shifting fog and rain. In an edgier performance, the earnest John (Nathan Cooper) manages to snag a man-in-the-street (Michael Salconi) whose reactions amount to one-minute negatives. An increasingly deranged Michael (played with manic energy by Nathan Fulton) reports the political blather of the governor, unable to cope with the encircling gloom. As the non-news event progresses, the psychic nights of each baffled commentator emerge through the non-sequiter prose. Old resentments about distant parents and childhood names scratch the vacant journo-babble. But the existential huffing-puffing cannot redeem the one-note satire.
Under J. Buck Jabailly's capable direction, Eno's sketch is given a polished production. Set in a series of life-size boxes, the various news personalities suffer visual as well as psychological isolation as night (and the absurdist reactions to night) envelop them. Each character moves from fumbling, vacuous reportage to anxious self-disclosure and desperation. Even the box isolation begins to break down as Michael, the most unhinged of the commentators, walks right into the audience to deliver his valedictory on the mysterious governor. But despite the occasional fury and Beckett echoes, the play cannot overcome its SNL-sketch limits.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Japanese Enchantment

Naoko Maeshiba's Paraffin is a kinetic wonder. Returning to Theatre Project this weekend, Maeshiba's performance troupe Kibism mesmerizes the viewer with one mysterious tableau after another. Employing mime, aerial movement, and muscular choreography, the various scenes evoke search, love, oppression, and death.
Three particularly haunting scenes remain in the memory. Wrapped in golden dresses and tissue-paper headdresses hiding the face, three women taunt three athletic men writhing in their dark suits. In a melancholic picnic pursued under the rain, three characters evoke the jealousies and shared memories of family life through the rhythmic movement of pot, bowls, and blanket. Evoking mechanical oppression, a troupe of white-uniformed technicians reduce a patient to a suffering object under the ballet of their probes and charts.
Far from narrative, the performance evokes the raw passions of fear and desire as the body is stretched to its physical and expressive limits. Presiding over the performance as a regal, expressive angel on a trapeze, Maeshiba develops a choreography remarkable for its energy and sculptural precision. Her movement is ably complemented by her electronic musical score and by Kel Millione's lighting design, which bathes the entire production in an ethereal golden light.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Cerebral Entertainment

One of the more offbeat theatrical offerings of the moment is Think Twice at Spotlighters. Directed by Rodney Bonds, the program is actually two one-act plays, Lecture with Cello by Robert Moulthrop and Sapiens! by Rich Espey. In each one-man play, a monologue explores the complexity behind some commonplace truths.
In Lecture with Cello a formally dressed musician gives a lecture on---you guessed it---a cello. The lesson gradually deteriorates into philosophical musings on the nature of truth and then into a furniture-throwing rant ignited by a lost passion. Employing the full gamut of emotions and gestures, Rodney Bonds astutely portrays the Chekhovian lecturer as he deteriorates before the audience's eyes and practically in the audience's lap. But running over an hour in length, the monologue's more metaphysical musings became tiring.
In Rich Espey's more accessible Sapiens! a young science teacher reacts in shock as some of his students challenge the theory of evolution. As the teacher seeks help from dialogues with other scientists, his wife, and memories from the past, the teacher slowly realizes that even many scientific "facts" rest on high probabilities and that certain truths about cosmic and human events might legitimately derive from religious or emotional premises. Like Bottom, Joshua Snowden winningly creates all the parts: Adam the teacher and all his imagined interlocutors. What began as a predictable tale of enlightened evolutionists vs. rabid creationists finally emerges as a cautionary tale on intellectual humility.
These two austere monologues are not standard summer fare but, directed and acted with incandescent passion, they are challenging, complementary explorations of the obscurity of truth, artistic or scientific.