Friday, August 19, 2011

On the Beach

The inaugural production of Seymoure Theater Company, Joe
Dennison's Muldoon is a gripping meditation on writing and violence.

Set at a Yucatan resort during the Zapatista uprisings in 1996, the play features three American exiles who confront their own violence in the isolation of a dingy hotel. A college professor, King (Stephen Deininger), his graduate assistant, Polly (Megan Rippey), and an alcoholic beachcomber, Pickle (Lynda McClary) are entangled in their own flights from something more than their native land. King is fighting his decline as a writer and his slavery to the bottle; Polly is confronting her diagnosis of terminal cancer; the uproarious Pickle is reeling from the death of her draft-dodging boyfriend (the mysterious Muldoon of the title) who fled to Mexico in the 1960s.

All three actors powerfully evoke the despair and violence-just-beneath-the-surface of their respective characters. McClary seems to be having the time of her life as the outrageous earth mother Pickle. She recites her stream-of-consciousness monologues, her obscure prophecies, and her poetic puns with alternating humor and intimidation. The second act provides the opportunity for several scorching confrontations as the more conventional masks of the characters fall on the shell-strewn beach.

As the action unfolds, the play explores how the growing violence of the characters turns into the narrative of the book King is desperately attempting to write. By the end of the play, it appears that the book (or the long-lost Muldoon) is actually authoring their destructive actions. While such meta-drama provides a challenging frame for the action, it occasionally becomes too didactic, as in the overly chatty ending of the first act.

Chip Chiperson's direction keeps an empathetic focus on the humanity of the characters, who could easily deteriorate into starchy literary theorists or cartoonish thugs. Even in the more academic passages, the pathos never disappears. The spare seaside set (designed by Joe Dennison, Alec Lawson, and Kendra Richard) and the ensemble of seaside sounds (designed by Dave Kiefaber) create a fitting atmosphere for the action. They reinforce the magical realism of the script.

Running this weekend and next at Mobtown Theater, Muldoon provides a challenge to thought and emotion in an exotic setting.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Avenging Angels

Entries in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival rarely burn with poetic intensity. Produced by Theatrical Mining Company and playing at Notre Dame College's Copeland Theater, Abraham and Isaac does. That is its strength but in its more static patches also its weakness.

Written by Stephen Schulze, this drama features a Columbine-like mass shooting at a school. The father of one of the victims, Charlie Barrow (Howard Berkowitz) tracks down one of the assailants, Ethan Brody (Daniel Sakamoto-Wengel). A military veteran and experienced hunter, Barrow's long monologues recount the killing of his daughter Vicki (Annie Unger) and the ensuing hunt. Richly metaphorical, the narratives evoke the shock of the bereaved father and the author's carefully observed love of nature. The grief of Charlie's estranged wife Anne (Raina Dewald) and the shame of Ethan's parents (masterfully played by Paul Ballard and Anne Marie Feild) enhance the pathos of the piece. A clever memorial service, in which the entire audience becomes the congregation of the bereaved, deepens the emotional pitch of the work by rooting it in the biblical suffering of Job and Christ crucified. (Tiffani Bliss Brown's delivery of the stirring sermon, however, is oddly muted.) Ably assisted by choreographer Nancy Flores, director Barry Feinstein's use of mime to evoke the violence and anguish of the characters underscores the play's poetic air.

At times, however, the poetic reminiscences freeze the work's action. The long narratives of the past become cumbersome; the too frequent strolls through nature exude a faded romantic perfume. The second act is overwhelmed by long patches of philosophical speculation. The vaguely Nietzschean theorizing by Charlie, Ethan, and Sheriff Watt (Steve Lichtenstein) on the enigma of evil rarely rises above cliche.

An emerging playwright---this is his first produced play---Schulze powerfully evokes the nihilism, grief, and bewilderment at the heart of our violence-soaked society. Abraham and Isaac is well worth the visit to Notre Dame. But the author has not quite made the transition from the poetic monologue and the philosophical treatise to the act-centered (rather than word or concept centered) world of drama.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Lyrical Gravel

Unraveled on the Gravel is a novelty for the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Curently running at Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, Kevin Kostic's play is the first musical in BPF's long history. The work studies the tormented relationship between Ray (Josh Kemper) and his fiancee Amber (Sarah Jachelski). Moving backward in time, the drama unveils the sources of the couple's emotional conflicts through their college years and through their fluctuating friendship with fellow students Marlon (Nick Huber) and Wayne (Michael Milillo). An odd ghost/alter ego/ friend Wricks (Christopher Jones) provides provocative commentary on the doomed relationship.

Carrying a perfume of 1950s existentialism, the play convincingly unpeels the layers of Ray's self-hating anguish, which manifests itself as an eerie addiction to hitchhiking. The actors provide a solid ensemble portrayal of a tormented network of friendship and hostility, ably directed by Michael Tan. The closing "secret" of the play is too pat and sudden, but gusts of humor soften this somewhat psychoanalytic exploration of self-destruction and misplaced guilt.

Capably accompanied by an acoustic-rock trio (Brennan Kuhns, Christopher Marino, Elliott Peeples), the score permits Ray to reveal his inner demons and desires. The score is not exactly memorable (you won't be humming the tunes on your way out to Saint Paul Street), but the earnest expression of raw emotions through music effectively underscores the self-revelation at the core of the piece. Unfortunately, most of the cast cannot sing. (The two exceptions are Huber and Jones.) The offkey notes---more than a few---constitute the performance's most excruciating moments.

This musical drama represents one of BPF's most ambitious works. Despite the lyrical flaws, the complex web of psychological anguish in the play's soul glows.