Boo, hiss

Pocket Sandwich Theatre's latest audience-participation epic evokes tired jeers

The first recorded theatrical performance, according to anthropologists studying Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France, was an audience-participation comedy.

Several Cro Magnon hunters reenacted how Og, the tribal fool, was run through the kidney by a woolly rhinoceros during a particularly raucous foraging party. Meanwhile, the audience encouraged the players by hurling bone fragments, stone implements, dried dung, and other bits of cave detritus at them.

This august tradition of audience-cast interaction continued through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the 19th century, when it reached its zenith in rowdy British beer halls.

It's kept alive today by audiences in inner-city movie theaters and by old-timey melodrama companies like the Pocket Sandwich Theatre. While other more artistically ambitious Dallas troupes play before empty seats, the Pocket Sandwich players strut and fret their hour on the stage before packed houses while being pelted with popcorn and amiable abuse. Sometimes, it really is "the most fun you can have in a Dallas theater," as the Pocket Sandwich's promotional materials proclaim.

But not this time. Death at Drury Lane, PST's latest bit of nonsense, is a tedious tale of how a murdered actor's ghost haunts a storied London theater, encouraging and protecting the nice actors and spooking the mean ones.

The problem with the play is that it ignores the conventions of melodramatic theater, and thereby lets the audience down. There are no songs, except the two sing-alongs, not related to the play, which open the show; there are no madcap chases; no actors in gorilla suits; no maidens dangling dangerously over cliffs; no dark science experiments gone horribly awry; few disastrous puns; little titillation; and not much at which to boo, cheer, or laugh.

The play doesn't really heat up until the last half of the final act, when the villain, an egomaniacal director, goes off his gourd and starts flailing about with an ax. Heads begin to roll, but by that time it's too late for the audience to find its participatory groove, which is essential if this kind of theater is to be any fun.

As the play plods to its climax, the bad-guy director rants that he will make the actress and the playwright with whom she betrayed him suffer--suffer!--at which point, a wag in the audience drolly remarked, "Make 'em watch this play."

It was by far the best line of the night, but unfortunately, not one you can count on hearing in subsequent performances.

Call me a boot-licking, buttocks-smooching suck-up if you will, yet I'll still maintain that Richard Hamburger is doing a bang-up job as artistic director of Dallas Theater Center.

He's got another of his patented "hidden classics" on tap at the DTC that deserves a bit of a drum-roll. The Sternheim Project: The Unmentionables and The Snob is an unwieldy title for a play that combines two works by early 20th-century German playwright Carl Sternheim. Opening night of this world-premiere adaptation is Tuesday, January 16 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.

Hamburger describes the play as "a compelling family saga that spans 30 years and includes recurring characters." The family in question consists of career-mongers and acquisitive investment-banker types who will do whatever it takes to break into the power-lunching and polo-playing set.

What made Hamburger pick these two works?
"I try to select plays that comment on the values and preoccupations of the community we live in," he says.

So, you say, Hamburger's a New Yorker who thinks we Dallasites are a bunch of greed-heads obsessed with conformity and material wealth, right?

Absolutely.
"Plays are hand-picked with the community in mind," Hamburger says. "We like to poke fun at the local fascination with success."

A combination of two obscure German plays may seem like an inappropriate vehicle for mirth, since "German humor" is practically an oxymoron. However, Hamburger maintains that Sternheim was not your garden-variety glum Teuton.

"Sternheim was an odd, sharp, and unpredictable playwright," Hamburger says. "He goes completely against the stereotype of German writers. Audiences should not approach this play with preconceptions about German theater. They should be prepared for a comedy of human foibles in the style of Molire."

The cast consists of the usual mix of local and out-of-town actors, the latter drawn mostly from New York or Los Angeles. Unlike the Canadian Football League, the DTC has no quota requiring that a particular number of local players be included in every cast.

"The point," Hamburger says, "is to fulfill the needs of the playwright. With a Latino-oriented play like Santos y Santos, we might draw more from New York- or Los Angeles-based talent. Dallas has a wealth of acting ability, however, and we use Dallas actors whenever we can."

After all, nobody knows what shallow, grasping, bourgeois buffoons we are better than a local.

 
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