Macaw of the wild

Undermain verbal nonsense entertains with loopy wit

There are, of course, two Dallases.
There's slick, soulless, sprawling, sterile Dallas, the one that all right-thinking boulevardiers disdain.

And then there's quirky, progressive, funky, interesting, artistic Dallas, its wee heart beating like a field mouse in its hole, which is all the more cherished by the cognoscenti (you and I) for being elusive and underground.

The Undermain Theater--always offbeat, experimental, and literally underground--is one underpinning of the second Dallas. Descending the steps of an old trade building on Main, you stumble into the cool and dark atmosphere with a sense of quivering ecstasy, like an Egyptologist entering an undiscovered tomb. Once inside, you warm up immediately to the hip but understated cellar ambience of the place. This is one alternative theater that doesn't try too hard to be cool, but is.

The good vibes increase once you take your seat for The Hyacinth Macaw. Set designer Nelson Robinson and lighting designer Keith Bresh have done a terrific job with the limited subterranean space at their disposal, shaping a spare set out of a table, a few chairs, a porch swing, some dry, hanging rushes, and a pile of sand. The lighting, a phosphorescent shade of Slurpee blue, and sound effects featuring falling water and a single, insistent bird call, set a mood pregnant with possibilities--most of them sinister.

The mysterioso mood is almost immediately undercut by an unexpected bit of silliness--the arrival of a train (done with a funny, low-tech flourish that I won't reveal). The train brings a Mr. Williams Hard to the town of Gradua by the banks of Bug River. The question, "Will a Hard man be good to find?" immediately presents itself.

The answer for Ray, Dora, and Susannah, an American family that would be considered typical if it lived in a dimension next door to ours, is equivocal, like the rest of the play. Hard brings a message to Ray, which causes Ray to abandon his family. Dora runs off with the local kook, Mad Wu, and Susannah and Hard bury the moon.

That's the plot.
The real point and pleasure of the play, however, are to be found in playwright Mac Wellman's linguistic shenanigans. His characters each pour forth monologues like this one from Ray as he toasts his family farewell:

"Tonight my heart is full with shreds, folded pop-ups, and the stuff of the heart, farewell stuff, feathers, obscure bones of small creatures, portraits in lockets of the lesser Popes, poop, sailboats, sentimental threnodies from the gaslight era, odd riffs of jazz, corny keepsakes, tufts of hair, confederate dollars sewn into the ruffles of antique gowns, ferrotypes of audacious perukes, satins, lizard skins, coral buttons, ivory needles, silver thimbles and billets-doux from the Pretty Times Done Did."

It's a highly idiosyncratic, free-association style that strays into wit and sense often enough to be entertaining and intriguing, rather than simply tedious. Even several days after seeing the play, I can still remember virtually every word of dialogue (of course, having the script in front of me helps).

This mostly inexplicable, Lewis Carroll kind of verbal nonsense can get old fast in the hands of an overmatched director and actors. But the cast, and director Katherine Owens, are definitely up to the material.

David Lugo, playing Hard, wields a commanding voice that is a pleasure to listen to even when the words he is given are sometimes as opaque as sheet metal. He also displays a sinewy, morally ambiguous presence that gives the play much of its dramatic tension.

Routh Chadwick plays Susannah as a kind of cross between Hayley Mills and Wednesday from the Addams Family. She's an All-American girl with a fetish for bugs and an unsavory tendency to unleash her carnal desires while wearing a fez--a trait that apparently runs in the family.

Rhonda Boutte is the patient mother who either understands everything or nothing. Both women bring energy to their roles but tend to swallow some of their dialogue as they hurry to get out lengthy speeches that can try the audience's patience.

The real gem of a performance, however, is turned in by Bruce DuBose as Ray, a family man who "has struggled to maintain a full larder, a cheerful parlor, and a back yard free of pests and vermin." DuBose, with his cheesy painted mustache, tousled hair, and lunatic's eyes, has that rare quality of "anythingness" about him--the sense that when he's on stage anything can happen. He preens, squinches, squawks, soliloquizes like Ahab and drags his body around the stage like Richard III. He also shows some versatility as Mad Wu, a dual part which requires DuBose, in a musical interlude, to accompany himself on the banjo. It's an extremely inventive interpretation of two roles that could easily sink under the weight of Wellman's words if DuBose were incapable of creating characters who might actually say such loopy things.

The play itself makes no apparent literal sense, but deals with "those obstinate questionings of sense and mortal things, fallings from us, vanishings." After about an hour and a half of this, you start to long for a good old plot line or two.

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