Thursday, May 19, 2011

Theater roundup: From Afghanistan war to Victorian sex

Eric Mendenhall and Elizabeth Birkenmeier in
The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider.

By Hap Erstein

Whether or not the pen is truly mightier than the sword,‭ ‬playwright Carter W.‭ ‬Lewis is out to prove in his enigmatically titled‭ ‬The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider that slam poetry can trump a mercenary private army.

If that sounds like an unlikely match-up,‭ ‬then you are grasping the surreal quality of this darkly comic tale,‭ ‬which seems headed towards a rant against the Blackwaters of the world,‭ ‬then takes a distinct left turn to demonstrate the transporting power of art.‭

Instead of political discourse,‭ ‬Lewis turns out to be interested in matters of the heart,‭ ‬even if the most prominent heart in the play happens to be artificial.‭ ‬Confused yet‭? ‬Oh,‭ ‬just head to Florida Stage,‭ ‬buckle your seat belt and go along for the ride.

The theatrical odyssey begins in the headquarters offices of‭ “‬e,‭” ‬a corporate army training facility.‭ ‬There Loretta Harahan‭ (‬Laura Turnbull‭) ‬and her daughter Bethany‭ (‬Elizabeth Birkenmeier‭) ‬have broken in and hacked into the company’s computers,‭ ‬hoping to gain the death benefits they are owed for Loretta’s husband,‭ ‬a high-ranking‭ “‬e‭” ‬officer killed by‭ “‬friendly fire‭” ‬from his own operatives.

Stack and Denny‭ (‬Todd Allen Durkin and Eric Mendenhall‭)‬,‭ ‬the hit men who did in Hanrahan in Kandahar,‭ ‬Afghanistan, have since been demoted to stateside security guards.‭ ‬Between grousing jags,‭ ‬they catch Bethany and abduct her to a greenhouse‭ ‬--‭ ‬impressively realized by scenic designer Victor A.‭ ‬Becker‭ ‬--‭ ‬that is rapidly gong to seed.

There,‭ ‬Bethany attracts yet another intriguing character,‭ ‬a wisecracking Muslim cab driver named Ahmad Ahmadazai‭ ‬--‭ ‬a moniker guaranteed to be mangled‭ ‬--‭ ‬who may actually be dead.‭ (‬Don’t ask,‭ ‬just go with it.‭) ‬As played with sly comic timing by Antonio Amadeo,‭ ‬the character and the performer all but steal the show.

There is more to the plot,‭ ‬but much of it should remain a surprise,‭ ‬as Lewis leads us a few cha-cha steps away from reality.‭ ‬Clarity is not the strength of the play’s resolution,‭ ‬but then you get the feeling that clarity was never intended.‭ ‬What is clear in the poetic resolution is that Birkenmeier pulls off a poetic performance art tour de force,‭ ‬which is best enjoyed when detached from any effort to ascribe meaning to it.‭

Over the past two decades,‭ ‬Florida Stage has produced a handful of Lewis’s works,‭ ‬all comedies,‭ ‬that have grown darker and increasingly more lyrical.‭ ‬As‭ ‬The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider demonstrates,‭ ‬he has not lost his ability to surprise or entertain us.

THE CHA-CHA OF A CAMEL SPIDER,‭ ‬Florida Stage,‭ ‬Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse,‭ ‬701‭ ‬Okeechobee Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬June‭ ‬5.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$25-50.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬585-3433‭ ‬or‭ ‬(800‭) ‬514-3837.

‭ * * *

Kati Brazda and Barbara Bradshaw in
The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Forty-ish,‭ ‬plain-looking Maureen Folan is no pageant contestant and the Irish village of Leenane is no winner among places to live.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬you will want to spend a couple of hours at Palm Beach Dramaworks‭’ ‬heartbreaking and perversely comic production of‭ ‬The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

It comes from the warped,‭ ‬yet amusing mind of Martin McDonagh,‭ ‬who has churned out numerous grisly tales of life in coastal Connemara,‭ ‬County Galway.‭ ‬Beauty Queen was his first work to reach Broadway,‭ ‬in‭ ‬1998,‭ ‬and is a good entry port into his world.

Poor,‭ ‬put-upon Maureen,‭ ‬a spinster with no prospects of romance,‭ ‬has devoted her life to attending the needs of her sour,‭ ‬manipulative mother,‭ ‬Mag,‭ ‬out of some misplaced sense of duty.‭ ‬They spend each day barking at one another,‭ ‬rocking-chair-bound Mag demanding her porridge or tea or other sustenance,‭ ‬pushing Maureen’s emotional buttons,‭ ‬and exasperated,‭ ‬weary Maureen pushing right back.

Maureen sees no way out of her predicament,‭ ‬until a distant acquaintance,‭ ‬Pato Dooley,‭ ‬returns briefly to Leenane from his home in London.‭ ‬Maureen not only reconnects with him at a party,‭ ‬she brings him back to her ramshackle house and takes him into her bed.‭ ‬Mag quickly perceives Pato as a threat to her status quo and she is correct,‭ ‬for he later writes Maureen,‭ ‬telling her about a job offer he has in Boston and inviting her to join him there.

Pato unwisely entrusts his not-too-bright brother Ray to deliver the letter into Maureen’s hands.‭ ‬Typical of McDonagh’s mordant humor is the scene where Ray arrives with the letter,‭ ‬impatiently considers leaving it with Mag,‭ ‬whose eyes dart around the room,‭ ‬feverishly eager to get her hands on the missive,‭ ‬suspicious of its contents and determined to intercept it.

The stakes keep increasing as Maureen and Mag turn their mental tug-of-war into a game that turns violent.‭ ‬With devilish skill,‭ ‬McDonagh plays with the audience,‭ ‬transferring our sympathies between the two women,‭ ‬as we begin to see how alike they really are.‭

Rugged Kevin Kelly lends worthy support as Pato,‭ ‬particularly when reciting his letter to Maureen,‭ ‬and Blake DeLong is even better as gregarious Ray.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬the play belongs to the two women and director William Hayes gets a couple of stellar performances from a couple of actresses familiar to Dramaworks‭’ ‬audiences.

Barbara Bradshaw‭ (‬The Gin Game,‭ ‬The Chairs‭) ‬turns her natural likeability inside out as Mag,‭ ‬a mother worth hating.‭ ‬Yet the actress delves deeper with the character and almost has up caring about the vindictive old biddy.‭ ‬Kati Brazda,‭ ‬so impressive as Josie Hogan in‭ ‬A Moon for the Misbegotten,‭ ‬plays a similar love-starved,‭ ‬no-longer-young woman here,‭ ‬with deceptive complexity.

For the final production at Dramaworks current cramped quarters,‭ ‬resident scenic designer Michael Amico again turns the space to his advantage,‭ ‬creating a drab,‭ ‬grimy,‭ ‬claustrophobic cottage,‭ ‬lit lugubriously by Ron Burns.

Palm Beach Dramaworks leans decidedly towards,‭ ‬well,‭ ‬dramas,‭ ‬with its stated mission of‭ “‬theater to think about.‭” ‬But with‭ ‬The Beauty Queen of Leenane,‭ ‬Hayes and company show that one need not stop thinking‭ ‬--‭ ‬and feeling‭ ‬--‭ ‬at a well-written,‭ ‬expertly performed comedy.

THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE,‭ ‬Palm Beach Dramaworks,‭ ‬322‭ ‬Banyan Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through June‭ ‬19.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$47.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬514-4042.

‭ * * *

Irene Adjan,‭ ‬Stephen G.‭ ‬Anthony,‭
‬Jim Ballard and Julie Kleiner in
In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play.
‭ (‬Photo by George Schiavone‭)

The applications of that marvelous discovery we call electricity have afforded civilization many modern conveniences,‭ ‬but none more revolutionary than the vibrator.‭ ‬That is the tongue-in-cheek view of playwright Sarah Ruhl,‭ ‬who explores the sexual awakening of Victorian society thanks to a little stimulation‭ “‬down there,‭” ‬in her Tony-nominated‭ ‬In the Next Room,‭ ‬or‭ ‬The Vibrator Play.‭

This amusing one-joke comedy,‭ ‬overstretched to a two-act play,‭ ‬considers the medical breakthrough of a Dr.‭ ‬Givings‭ (‬a charmingly solicitous Jim Ballard‭)‬,‭ ‬who has built up a tidy practice in upstate New York treating women for the catch-all complaint known as‭ “‬hysteria.‭”

You see,‭ ‬he has a marvelous wooden box with knobs and dials,‭ ‬attached to a humming handset which he applies with care to his patients‭’‬,‭ ‬um,‭ ‬female nether parts.‭ ‬The result is an abrupt contraction that Givings calls a‭ “‬paroxysm.‭” ‬His patients have no idea what to call it‭;‬ they just know they are eager to sign up for daily treatments.

Typical of the doctor’s clientele is Sabrina Daldry‭ (‬Irene Adjan‭)‬,‭ ‬who arrives with her perplexed,‭ ‬chauvinistic husband‭ (‬Stephen G.‭ ‬Anthony‭) ‬and is whisked into‭ “‬the next room‭” ‬--‭ ‬Givings‭’ ‬examination lab‭ ‬--‭ ‬to get the vibrator special.‭ ‬The same goes for an effete artist named Leo Irving‭ (‬Ricky Waugh‭)‬,‭ ‬suffering from a similar malady.‭ ‬He is given the same treatment,‭ ‬though with a long cylindrical attachment to the handset,‭ ‬applied to his anus,‭ ‬if you get the picture.

Dr.‭ ‬Givings is so concerned for his patients,‭ ‬yet oblivious to the agitated unhappiness of his wife Catherine‭ (‬Julie Kleiner‭)‬,‭ ‬a new mother producing insufficient milk to nurse her baby.‭ ‬So she hires the Daldrys‭’ ‬housekeeper‭ (‬Renata Eastlick‭)‬,‭ ‬who recently lost her own baby,‭ ‬as a wet nurse and quickly becomes resentful that her child takes so readily to the nurse.‭

Ruhl’s view of these Victorians is rather cartoonish and condescending.‭ ‬The women know nothing about sex,‭ ‬even as they keep popping out babies,‭ ‬and the men are content to keep them ignorant.‭ ‬Virtually every character misreads romantic signals and acts erratically on impulse,‭ ‬but oh,‭ ‬that vibrator machine,‭ ‬it is a marvel.

Ruhl,‭ ‬whose‭ ‬Dead Man’s Cell Phone and‭ ‬The Clean House have also been produced locally,‭ ‬knows how to create provocative situations,‭ ‬but then usually seems at a loss for a justifying point of view.‭ ‬Nevertheless,‭ ‬she is a critics‭’ ‬darling and‭ ‬The Vibrator Play was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.‭ ‬At‭ ‬GableStage,‭ ‬Joe Adler does what he can to breathe life into the script and,‭ ‬despite this world of corsets and complex undergarments,‭ ‬he manages to find an opportunity for some nudity.

IN THE NEXT ROOM,‭ ‬or THE VIBRATOR PLAY,‭ ‬GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel,‭ ‬1200‭ ‬Anastasia Avenue,‭ ‬Coral Gables.‭ ‬Through June‭ ‬12.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$37.50-$47.50.‭ ‬Call‭; ‬(305‭) ‬445-1119.‭

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