Women at war

A battle of ideas sinks Bucket Productions' uneven premiere of Wrens

Wrens is so naturalistic, so utterly stripped of even the slightest theatrical bauble, that the faults of the script seem larger, the performances overly chatty and sharply divided between the first act's casual bickering and the second's grand philosophical conflicts. These Wrens keep a small supply of stolen or black-market-bought rationed items--tea, sugar, biscuits, cigarettes--that they help themselves to as a means of relieving the pressure of their austere Scottish island location. Well into the performance, I began to long for a little theatrical contraband myself to get some relief from this claustrophobic, ascetic saga of small lives making big sacrifices.

Wrens runs through August 29. Call (214) 528-5725.

Writer-director Pete Gooch was a member of a comedy troupe called Throbbing Spatula before he detoured into playwriting. He has found the kind of backing most Texas playwrights only dream of: a full-fledged artistic association with one drama company. Fort Worth's Hip Pocket Theater has produced all four of Gooch's scripts, including his latest, Fatty in Babylon, a fact- and fantasy-laced account of the disgraced silent-film heavyweight Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

"People have pointed out to me that most of my plays have cinematic themes," Gooch says, referring to his first, 1994's Ed Wood bio Hubcaps Afire Over Hollywood, and his second, the film noir homage Swank City. "But the film stuff is incidental to me. What I'm interested in is the role of the artist in a particular culture, and how there can be a gap between where the artists think they are and where the culture has placed them."

The silent-film culture placed Roscoe Arbuckle (played by Jamie Jamison in the Hip Pocket show) to unprecedented heights of popularity late in the second decade of the 20th century. As a fearlessly slapstick comic actor, Arbuckle rose from a bit player drawing $3 a day at Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios to a star securing a million a year and artistic control over his movies even Chaplin didn't enjoy.

It all came crashing down in 1921 when a young actress wannabe (played by Karyn Lush) died of peritonitis from previous bladder problems shortly after an altercation in Arbuckle's bedroom during a drunken Hollywood party. The rumors began to fly that she had died from injuries sustained after being sexually assaulted by Fatty. Four trials, angry anti-Arbuckle public protests, and reams of scathing publicity by William Randolph Hearst later, Arbuckle was acquitted but banished from films forever.

"I come from a working-class background," Gooch says. "And I'm fascinated by characters who also come from there, then get the chance to rise from it, but lose a part of themselves in the process. Fatty had been very poor and always very conscious of his weight, so he got drunk and rowdy to compensate for it. That's what made him a success, but in the end, he got too successful and was put back in his place.

"You have to remember that in the early film days, most actors didn't even have their names listed in the credits. I believe there was a sentiment by the industry that Fatty had gotten--pardon me--too big for the studio."

Fatty in Babylon is framed by scenes showing silent film pioneer D.W. Griffith shooting the "Feast of Balthazar in Babylon" segment from Intolerance. Although unrelated to Fatty's career, it's a famous movie fantasy sequence Gooch found appropriate.

"Griffith's Babylon was made of two-by-fours," says Gooch. "It's a phony, just a movie set. Yet it's the kind of world that became more real to Fatty than the one he came from."

Fatty in Babylon runs through August 30. Call (817) 246-9775.

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