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Marie and Bruce is the must-see second act of Our Endeavors' duo

To oversimplify matters, you could say that the pair of one-acts that make up Our Endeavors' latest evening, Loved It/Hated It: Two Distinct Plays, are separated as sharply as the mind-heart dichotomy: The first act makes you think, the second act makes you feel. But we know from real life--and theater should always be about real life, whether it's a moon-eyed musical or a stern avant-garde opus--that people track mud back and forth between the head and the heart, so it's never a clean split. If you remember that emotion often seizes the wheel from intellect, the show's first play, Howard Barker's Wounds to the Face, is at an immediate disadvantage to the second, Wallace Shawn's Marie and Bruce, because the personalities of the two playwrights are significantly different. Barker stands over theater, imperious and rubber-gloved, as if it were a hygienic operating table, while Shawn is the weird but funny student hunched over the dissection pan in class, pulling out the guts of the pinned, wriggling animal specimen with glee. The latter is automatically going to get more attention than the former.

It's best not to take co-producer Scott Osborne's Loved It/Hated It program ballot--audiences are encouraged to vote on which show they preferred--any more seriously than a theatrical version of William Castle's '50s moviehouse gimmickry. His producing (and domestic) partner Patti Kirkpatrick made pains before last Friday night's performance to clarify that the shows were not in competition with each other. But whether or not you choose to vote, the ballot does have some symbolic significance in assessing the audience's expectations of theater. Do you want the stage to be a stimulator of thought or a kick in the ass? It can be both, of course, but Loved It/Hated It: Two Distinct Plays is a thoughtful reminder of how playwrights and directors often make these approaches a fork in the road, going down one to the other's exclusion.

The path we are led down by Wounds to the Face is cold and not overgrown with foliage. Director Donna Sherritt mostly collaborates with the sensibility of Barker, alternately to the benefit and detriment of audience members. Barker is not a ticklish guy--he's suspicious of laughter in the theater because he believes that most comic material treats ticket-buyers as a group, not as individuals. Tragedy, he insists, does the opposite: It separates the house and then addresses that separateness one-on-one. But Barker's version of tragedy ain't exactly emotion-wracked, either; his stuff can be sharp-edged and metallic, more a carefully composed, legalistic protest letter than a cry from an outraged victim.

Wounds to the Face is a series of interlocked vignettes about the human face in different times and circumstances. The center story is an unnamed revolution in which a dictator (Mark Odell) has adapted himself to fit the logo-like image of his face that graces posters across the land. Meanwhile, a soldier (Tom Eppler) in the revolution has had his face scarred beyond recognition by a grenade, a disability approved of by his smothering mother (Hazel Beasley) because "women cannot love a man with no face." However, his condition is about to be relieved by a plastic surgeon (Jeffrey Farrell), who declares that "to restore the face is to restore the character." Like most left-wing revolutions, religion is suspect, and the God-like power of the surgeon will bring upon him a terrible punishment.

Wounds to the Face is thought-provoking, but director Sherritt has mostly encouraged her actors to deliver their lines with self-conscious gravity. Occasionally, someone breaks through--Jeffrey Farrell spins a marvelous monologue as a hooded executioner, or so we think, speaking into the mirror about "a killing today." But a lot of this stuff feels like a packet of theater concentrate: some water, preferably a gush of either laughter or tears, needs to be added. The most successful piece is, not surprisingly, the funniest (nobody tell Barker!): a pompous emperor (Tom Eppler) condemns a snotty painter (Cristela Carrizales) for a portrait he doesn't like.

Just as you're ready to label this evening "interesting" and move on, Marie and Bruce stampedes in after intermission, grabs you by the lapels, sits you down hard on your butt, and tells a sadly funny, very familiar tale. Wallace Shawn's foul-mouthed reverie is essentially a series of duets and interior monologues spoken by virago Marie (Christina Vela) and castrato Bruce (David Goodwin). She's ready to leave this unsatisfying relationship and is more than eager to tell Bruce as the play opens one morning in their claustrophobic urban apartment. "You fucking pig! You disgusting, cocksucking shit!" Marie shrieks at Bruce for quite a while, and we get tense, fearing that this strident profanity will be the tee-hee dirty-joke sum of both Vela's performance and the play.

But director Mark Farr is shrewdly forcing us to put up our guard. Vela's opening tirade will merely be one of many colorful, subtler variations on a repeating theme--the relationship of anger and need. Classical composers have often used this device--repeating the same movement a little differently each time so you'll feel its depth--and Farr and his fantastic lead actors prove you can transfer this to theater if you have the chops. Every rant in this show unfolds a little differently, with more mixed emotion, because of the crime that transpired before, and the characters themselves show entirely new sides. Suddenly, Marie is transformed into a soft-voiced, amazed innocent as she cavorts, hilariously and touchingly, through gardens and shops, preparing for a party she will attend that night. Meanwhile, Bruce metamorphoses too, from put-upon whiner into heartless predator, glaring at women in restaurants and through apartment windows--or, more specifically, glaring at their breasts.

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