Mean and Lean

While Undermain explores the dark side of the imagination, Lean Theater keeps it light

There is one standard I hold for so-called "experimental" forms, be it in the novel or the poem or the play: Does it ripple? A delightful, now-deceased college English professor lectured at length on the phenomenon of "rippling," and it has become an ideal bullshit detector for works whose creators insist they are either forging new forms or subverting old ones. No matter how non-narrative or allegedly subconscious in its inspiration, the piece will prove more than merely masturbatory if, like the most traditionally structured tale, there is at least one powerful central idea or even just an image that stirs waves--ripples--outward from the center of the work, propelling characters and situations backward or forward. The organic pieces of the experiment will float and hopefully sail on the recurrences and repetitions of this centerpiece, and the stuff that should've been edited will sink below the surface, ill-designed for such maritime adventures. A successful pass of this test doesn't guarantee great art, but it does prove, as the professor would say, that the author is "on to something."

OK, class dismissed. Your assignment is to catch Undermain's production of Wallpaper Psalm and decide for yourself if twentysomething theatrical tinkerer Ruth Margraff's "hysteric and electric operetta" is a pretentious hill of psychosexual beans or a stonework monument to unspoken, sometimes unacknowledged fears of family and sexual rivalry jutting out of our collective unconscious. For me, the play rippled--with intermittent pauses of awkward stillness--mostly because Margraff and Undermain director Katherine Owens have made certain that script and production remain firmly entrenched in the love-hate relationship between two very different sisters. These sisters are the echoing center, but there are all kinds of interwoven themes that keep popping up like patterns on the lacework collars of their dresses--global war, the unpredictability of electricity, the birth and death of Christ, romantic jealousy, the sorrows of birth and bodily decay--that are positioned just close enough to our primal fears to leave an uneasy tingling as they brush past us in the fast, furious parade of this show's wordplay. Yet despite the best efforts of two talented leads, tingling is the sum achievement of this rambling production. That's disappointing, since a show that features such brutal confrontations and gut declarations should have its hands all over you like a disrespectful first date. Light petting is our reward instead, with the burn of passion behind the play's touch only dimly experienced.

Lighting designer Bryan Miller has knocked three pitches in a row straight out of the Undermain park. A longtime collaborator with 11th Street Theatre Project, Miller's last two projects with Undermain--The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite and Therese Raquin--glowed with the kind of expressionistic ardor and despair that perfectly accentuate the faces and voices of the actors in Wallpaper Psalm. Whether streaming dim bluish city streetlights through the big windows of the apartment of aged Chaucia (Kateri Cale) or golden leaf-patterned sun on Chaucia and Sissy (Rhonda Boutte) as they stroll in separate scenes with lover Robert (Spencer Driggers), Miller remains vividly inside the heads of these moribund siblings, which is a pretty dangerous place, as Margraff's script unfolds in a series of interlocked scenarios whose reality is always subject to question. At the play's opening, Chaucia returns to her apartment building nursing a mouth injury whose cause she can't articulate. Decorous and judgmental, she awaits with trepidation the arrival of her sister, boisterous and bullying even in the late stages of bone cancer. Robert, their smooth-talking paramour, resurfaces from their pasts as the apartment's sarcastic concierge and comes between them yet again. But he's not the only man in their lives. The perpetrator (Nick Brisco) is both thug and electrician, a man who gains entry to Chaucia's apartment in some pretty unconventional ways and sets up a terror inside her that's the result of either real threat or frail, old-age paranoia. In the end, the sisters are reduced to creaky physical conflict when a long-awaited man comes knocking at the door.

Kateri Cale and Rhonda Boutte are never less than satisfying in Wallpaper Psalm, although Boutte's gifts are mostly expended as perpetual cutup while Cale takes the prim straight-woman role and fashions a truly touching figure from it. Both are also encouraged to exercise their fine voices through the songs, with lyrics by Margraff and an almost entirely original electronic composition from Undermain's artistic associate Cameron Cobb. Unfortunately, much of the vocalizations called for by Margraff and director Owens are pure distractions that derail us from the dreamy, nocturnal choo-choo course of the show. This seems more true for Spencer Driggers and Dallas-based musician Nick Brisco; the latter is given the thankless task of grunting a drum-thrashing rant called "Radio Spider Demon" that brings the proceedings to a sudden, wheel-squealing halt just as suspense has begun to build.

What's deceptive is calling this show an "operetta"--you might even go so far as to call this a self-deception on the author's part. Margraff was surely being ironic using that word in the subtitle, as it usually refers to the frothiest, most deliriously romantic operas Italy has produced. But there's the creeping sense that what might've been a little bait and switch on the playwright's part for fellowship, grant, and workshop purposes gained a head of steam that eventually clouded her vision. Margraff said up front she was messing with the shape of a 17th-century European stage form (How ambitious! How fund-worthy!), perhaps knowing she would then deliver nothing more than a play with songs--and half of those are self-conscious at best, extraneous at worst. At some point, was Margraff herself so enamored with coupling "operetta" with the half-rhyme adjectives "electric and hysteric" that she eventually convinced herself that she was pouring vintage wine into a wacky, modern new bottle? Not so fast. Wallpaper Psalm is a discordant musical with pretensions that sometimes succeed, although ultimately at the expense of what might've been a purer, more potent shock from the brain's memory synapses if Margraff had rocked steady on her voyage into the great storm-tossed ocean of sibling vagaries. As it is now, Undermain actors and audience spend too much time dumping unnecessary cargo to get there.

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