Pot party

Reefer Madness contains some of Pegasus' best ensemble work in ages

Although I haven't always enjoyed Pegasus Theatre artistic director Kurt Kleinmann's doggedly cinematic brand of live comedy, his dedication to it has a definite logic when you consider how the American stage and American film have both traded traditional theatrical acting for "authenticity." Before Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, et al., had actors approach their craft as a form of therapy--using memory as a tool to access a character's emotions from the actor's real-life experiences--there were Gertrude Lawrence, John Barrymore, John Gilbert, and Bette Davis. They were presentational rather than representational actors--highly stylized, completely original, but not believable in the way we've come to expect our dramatic personae to be. The costumes may have changed, the accents adjusted here and there, but these performers were never recognizable as anyone but themselves. While I'm not enthralled with "old movies" as a glommed-together genre the way some people are, I can watch Bette Davis movies till my eyes bleed. In almost all her roles, she is inescapably Bette Davis, an exotic and urgent creature I will never encounter anywhere else.

Kurt Kleinmann rolls up his sleeve and sticks his arm into the gloppiness of '30s, '40s, and '50s movies to retrieve this abandoned presentational style that had once ruled the cinema for a good 35 years (tack on another fifteen for the American theater). Showiness and affectation are nowadays condemned as indulgence, but that artifice was the foundation of the actor's craft for centuries before Stanislavski used psychoanalysis to paintbrush a veneer of respectability on a previously vagrant art.

Although Kleinmann neither wrote nor directed Pegasus' current production, Reefer Madness, his atavistic muse encircles it like a velvet rope. From a large cast of Pegasus regulars, Director J. Mitchell Lambert has elicited slower, more seamless, less strenuously antic performances for this very faithful live staging of Louis Gasnier's 1936 cinematic cannabis cautionary. The results may not be what Pegasus fans have come to expect--the pace of some of the scenes is almost languid, the laughs scattered more sparsely throughout. But for me, it was both a relief and a strangely compelling delight. My sides weren't aching with laughter--a dubious goal, anyway, that Pegasus seems to have pursued with too much dedication in the past. But I was drawn into the pure melodrama of the enterprise and charmed by actors who maneuvered their archetypes with scary precision. There were few winks to the audience at the performance I attended; what prevailed was an interlocked series of performances that summoned a lost, flickering world of harsh judgment and silken decadence.

Maybe it was Mark Hankla's grim, spare set--a series of slightly warped, military-gray rectangles and squares festooned with newspaper slang for hemp and scrambled warnings about its effects. With no props, no furniture, no backgrounds trying to evoke the '30s film, we're left to concentrate solely on the actors in high contrast. I've seen Reefer Madness at least half a dozen times since high school, and Sean Abley's dramatization is faithful down to long blocks of resuscitated dialogue, so it's to the performers' credit that I found myself interested in how they'd deliver the next scene.

We're warned away from the devil's weed by the tragic lives of Bill (Mark Shum) and Mary (Elizabeth Collins), a teenage couple unwittingly drawn into a series of marijuana parties hosted by a pair of no-good adult hoods, Jack (Jim Hopkins) and Mae (Shannon Woelk). The other young couple, Jay (Nye Cooper) and Gwen (Jennifer Earhart), are already semi-regulars to the hotstick fun. Pegasus regulars Andi Allen, Steve Lovett, and Tom Lenaghen round out the sordid action. And yes, it's all here--the crazed piano playing, the furious makeout scenes, the weeping suburban parents, the hit-and-run driving.

I saw Charles Busch perform an original play, Queen Amarantha, that was very much like what Pegasus approximates in Reefer Madness--a serious delivery of a pantingly melodramatic script that had some moments of comic relief. To present such overwrought situations faithfully, letting the audience wring laughter from them where they will, is probably a box-office risk. Ticket-buyers are left to wonder why the actors aren't acknowledging that this is camp. But many of the actors in the Pegasus show were so on-target with their voices and expressions, I marveled at what looked like a cryogenically preserved company thawed just before the curtain (that's a compliment).

Nye Cooper continues to be the model for Pegasus comedy--and pretty much any comic acting in Dallas--with his total immersion in what are essentially cameo roles. He plays a sleazy older boy who gets his girlfriend hooked, a little brother, and most hilariously, a potbellied Southern prosecutor at the marijuana trial. His command of accents and his comic timing are delightful. Jennifer Earhart went from ambitious, wannabe dancer to addicted, wild-haired stripper and prostitute, but kept a comic lifeline between them. I wish Shannon Woelk as Mae, the hostess with the mostest, had more time onstage. She seems like a three-dimensional, celluloid-based hologram of brassy gangster film molls. Jim Hopkins and Adam Haskins were equally vivid noir archaeologists, while Mark Shum and Chris Cason, as young bucks gone wild, wisely play it reserved, until marijuana takes over, and they become nervous, wild-haired jonesers with hilarious Carnival of Souls black eye makeup.

In a weird way, Pegasus Theatre's Reefer Madness rescues that film from the graveyard of camp and makes it relevant again as clumsy, throbbing, improbable tragedy. The cast members choose not to turn their outlandish roles into Silly Putty stretch-a-thons, not to shackle the material with ironic quotation marks by constantly breaking character to mug. For the most part, this Reefer Madness is played as if it were really happening in some twisted forbidden zone where marijuana drives people to suicide, insanity, murder, and prostitution. The actors perform as though they don't even realize they're being watched, which means they never show their hand, and we are left to ponder a completely sincere, crisply articulated nightmare. What makes camp entertaining, after all, is that its creation was unintended and the idea of it ever substituting reality too horrific to consider. When they don't work so hard and just let their talents rise naturally to the surface, these Pegasus actors are funny in a way that includes and ultimately transcends the merely amusing.

Reefer Madness runs through August 29. Call (214) 821-6005.

Banter

You can be the snottiest theater critic in the world, but the phrase "For Mature Audiences Only" will still send a little naughty thrill up your spine. Fort Worth's Stage West has attached this caveat on the latest production of its "Adventure Series," Quills. But this Obie Award-winning show by native Dallasite Doug Wright may not be as explicit as some dread (or hope for), says co-star Jerry Russell.

"Some of the stories I'll be telling are outrageous, but they're written in very beautiful, very high-flown language," says Russell, referring to his role as the Marquis de Sade.

Quills concerns de Sade's autumn years in the asylum of Charenton, where his wildly imaginative, erotic, sometimes sadistic stories and plays are tolerated by a gentle-hearted Abbe (Tom McNelly), who is constantly being pressured by the institution's rulers to quash them. The show is written very much as a comedy, "but it's not really camp," insists Russell. "They're theatrical, very artificial. You look at them and obviously know they're not trying to be real, yet there is reality in what they're trying to represent, you know?"

Quills runs August 6-15. Call (817)

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