Bright light

Undermain turns the world premiere of Shiner into a beacon of Dallas talent

In the Undermain Theatre's world premiere of Shiner, one character asks auto-mechanic and serial killer Agate (Dalton James) why he smiles so much. It's not really a smile, replies the sly, reptilian Agate: "It's just bad teeth."

That icy little moment perfectly encapsulates the duality in almost every scene of Shiner, a quasi-musical played out with hard Texas twang and occasionally lovely exchanges among unlikely intimates performed by a cast of young Dallas heavy-hitters. Moments turn out to be sweet and cruel, innocent and dirty-minded, savage and funny in Erik Ehn and Octavio Solis' journey across West Texas. It's there that a brutal slayer of women (James as Agate) and a guilt-ridden executioner named Stashu (Jeremy Schwartz) stumble along the same dusty road, followed by Stashu's angry ex-wife Nilda (Christina Vela) and their daughter Xela (Jenni Tooley), a desperate invalid who is able to communicate only through a computer.

So does Shiner sound tangled, overcomplex, and burdened? This weirdly compelling mélange of Lone Star soul and big-city bite did scatter itself a bit during the first act, but once intermission was over and these talents got a sense of the white line on which they were traveling, Shiner kicked into high, hilarious gear. You won't see a convergence of this much young Dallas acting ability again anytime soon, so I suggest you hightail it to the Undermain's basement space so you can play "Remember When" a year from now on a Monday night at Lakewood Landing or Snookie's. The performers start off a bit shaky, especially when the songs kick in (voices didn't register loud enough in the early tunes), but they eventually relax and stretch out like sleepy cats to convey a most convincing parable about sin forgiven, if never forgotten.

From left: Jeremy Schwartz, Christina Vela, and Dalton James travel a long road to forgiveness in Undermain's world-premiere production.
From left: Jeremy Schwartz, Christina Vela, and Dalton James travel a long road to forgiveness in Undermain's world-premiere production.

San Francisco playwrights Ehn and Solis have created a true ensemble piece, a stage situation in which a large cast doing multiple characters must avoid playing dodge ball if this contraption is to work. These young performers must respect one another's epiphanies, or the whole fabric would unravel when somebody steps on somebody else's moment in the spotlight. Director Raphael Parry has helped his ensemble understand each scene as the play mounts toward an epic vision of grace and brutality. In the best moments, you sit riveted while goose bumps appear on your arms.

Inside the tiny Undermain basement, there's a large screen and a small TV projecting myriad sequences, some outright satirical (producer Laurel Hoitsma doing priceless TV reporter shtick about the serial killer) and others scatological (Dalton James licking the gutted belly of one victim, posting the sign "Dead Fuck" on another). Tom Hall and Jake Hughes from ION Storm provide generic video-game images of James, Tooley, and other actors squaring off in zooming, darting sequences. The multimedia combination works better than in other recent productions (say, Our Endeavors' version of Howard Barker's Wounds to the Face) because the computer/video stuff is used as spice, not filler. Your eyes dart from the live action to the canned effects, and one heightens the other.

You expect quality performances from Jeremy Schwartz, Dalton James, and Christina Vela. But here they surprise you not so much with their virtuosity as with their generosity -- once again, thanks to Parry, everyone onstage seems to have a sense of place, of purpose in this tiny theatrical universe. You can get drunk on Vela and still not have your thirst slaked; this versatile actress can generate laughter or tears from a sad or outraged glance. Schwartz is big and blustery, as expected, but he staggers his way through this misadventure with visible apprehension, with a palpable fear during each scene that he will encounter yet more tragedy (and he will). James has often seemed most comfortable onstage alone, doing his loquacious performance art thing, but here he's refreshingly cautious and aware of his co-stars, selectively distributing spoonfuls of poisonous glee. His masculine-feminine presence makes psycho killer Agate creepily sympathetic, vulnerable, and scary at the same time.

Sometimes talking with a slur, other times standing to deliver a defiant monologue in crisp diction, Jenni Tooley is wonderful as the executioner's daughter who refuses to eat until her father returns. She moves about the stage in a wheelchair, head tilted and mouth grimacing, and mostly supplies the play's moments of unmitigated beauty. The other head-turner in this production is Newton Pittman, a scrawny little guy who packs a stage wallop. He seamlessly pulls off an old death-row inmate, a waiter, or a talking ram with equal authority. He played Narcissus in Undermain's previous production, the disappointing Polaroid Stories, but here puts his concrete sense of self to more effective use.

The Undermain's Shiner is a music-filled meditation about lust and redemption that constantly turns on itself and on the audience. The language is sometimes self-consciously poetic, the guitar-plucking interludes full of thespian revery, but these carefully selected actors shimmer in repose, waxing quietly profound as one pursues another in endless chase. Credit Max Hartman, his back to the audience, doing a final summation as Merle Haggard at the State Fair of Texas, with Jeremy Schwartz wheeling Jenni Tooley around after he's just zapped vicious killer Dalton James. Hartman performs a mournful barroom country ditty as Schwartz and Tooley celebrate the reunion of a father and daughter; it's a perfectly sweet culmination of a bittersweet tale about death and responsibility and the consequences of ignoring both.

 
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