That Gothic thing

11th Street Theatre Project paints two very different family portraits in Southern Rituals

All the actors manage to strike the right tone of hopeless humor, of an unconscious desperation to find meaning in past tragedies by reenacting them, but the real find here is Lea Barron as Ellie. Hers is, essentially, a stock role--the irreparably damaged, child-like Southern daughter. But Barron serves us that familiar menu item like nobody had ever cooked it up before. She's the anchor of anguish in this play, the one who gives resonance and depth to the play-acting exorcism. If the others seem unwilling or unable to fully grasp the pain behind these games, Barron can't escape it. The Red Sedum Creeper of the title is her sorrow, curling and twining until it engulfs her whole body.

Southern Rituals runs through May 29. Call (214) 522-PLAY.

Banter
New York City has long been considered America's theatrical mecca, but there are discontented rumblings from the faithful all across the country: Must we uproot ourselves and struggle in a crowded, expensive city to create and produce innovative stage works of national prominence?

David Goldman of the Eugene O' Neill Center created the National New Play Network, in part, as a response to his feeling that New York has too long dominated the process of generating American plays. The Network consists of a string of small theater companies in cities that have distinguished themselves with a history of staging new plays. Kitchen Dog Theater joined last May; they have been sharing scripts, information, and resources with other network members, with the goal of sustaining a national support system for emerging theater artists, especially playwrights.

"The traditional system of play development is, it starts off in New York then moves to a midsize regional theater then a small company and then a community theater," says Kitchen Dog managing director Meghan Saleebey. "It's a way of saying we want to create works all across the country...The theaters [in the network] are actively committed to the idea that to reinvigorate the American theater, you have to have a formal way of finding and supporting new playwrights. David Goldman traveled around the country and looked for theaters with a history of taking risks, and a younger, urban audience base. I think it's an honor to be asked."

As part of its commitment to the network, Kitchen Dog presents its First Annual New Works Festival, featuring one full main-stage production and seven staged readings of scripts that were submitted to the Dog. Artistic director Dan Day helms the world premiere of SMU theater grad David Schulner's Isaac. Like Undermain associate and SMU grad Cameron Cobb's recent Didymus, Isaac takes a Bible story (Abraham and Isaac) and uses it to examine the contradictions of faith. During the pair's journey through the desert to Mount Mariah, where the son will be sacrificed, Abraham and Isaac's lives unfold in a series of flashbacks. Satan makes several appearances, reminding them of the historical import of their journey, but director Day says the playwright's preoccupation is really with a 20th century atrocity.

"David Schulner is Jewish, and he's grappling with his faith and the Holocaust here," Day says. "My understanding is, David has this sense that in a lot of Holocaust literature, because of the faith of the Jews in Germany and their ideas about being the chosen people, that they believed such a thing [as the Holocaust] was unthinkable. There was a lot of denial or blindness as Hitler was gearing up. No violent resistance was ever organized. People went to their deaths believing that God would not let this happen to them. On the one side, faith is a vital part of being human. But it can also lead to fanaticism and violence and blindness."

As far as the staged readings go, two Dallas playwrights will be represented. Kitchen Dog member Tina Parker will direct God Goliath, a script by Theatre Quorum co-founder Angela Wilson that incorporates the life of Harry Houdini with issues of science and technology and, specifically, the politics of breast-cancer research. Fellow Dog Tim Johnson directs a reading of Donald Fowler's Peggy Lee on the Midway, a hallucinatory, consciously poetic look at an incestuous relationship between a father and a daughter that culminates in a crippling accident at an amusement park.

Whew! Grand themes, noble ideas, nontraditional approaches. It's the kind of stuff The New Play Network (and Kitchen Dog's associated New Works Festival) was created to showcase. Meghan Saleeby sees the goal as nothing short of creating a new American theater aesthetic. "Whether old or young, these new voices reflect a movement."

Kitchen Dog presents The First Annual New Works Festival May 22 through June 13. Call (214) 953-1055.

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