By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
This year finds MoonWater reflecting various distorted shots of the death penalty, and the timing with Timothy McVeigh's scheduled execution and last-minute stay couldn't be more propitious, although it's apparently coincidental. The trouble is, you'll find more grist to gnaw on in the migraine-inducing cable TV shoutfest Hardball than most of the six playlets here that range from poignant to absurdist--and that's a fairly damning statement. We could start off with the questionable quality of some of the submissions to MoonWater's script search. The final entry onstage is Kris Kissel's You Can't Dis the King, an irrelevant, thuddingly unfunny piece about an Elvis impersonator (Carey Wolff) arrested and executed on a guillotine named "The Lisa Marie" by two Kafkaesque cops (Lydia MacKay and Mark Phillips). But first, we must acknowledge that even though MoonWater is full of proven performance talents--Schmidt, MacKay, Jakie Cabe, Brad Jackson--they haven't gelled abilities and sensibilities in their first season. Watching them, you can't shake the impression that they're little more than a promising undergrad stage ensemble. On last week's opening night performance, lines were flubbed, lights miscued, and the videotaped performance of Pix Smith's black puppet comedy Heads Will Roll began at the end of the tape and had to be rewound. I might've appreciated Smith's eerie trio of talking decapitated heads celebrating the means and reasons of their own executions if I could have heard the dialogue and seen the visuals projected on a white screen instead of a wall. The funniest thing about Lyn Fenwick's The Detail, in which a husband and wife (Rebeccah Graham and Jeff Heald) argue over George W. Bush's understanding of hate-crimes laws during the Bush-Gore debate, is Dubya's own scatterbrained assessment of the James Byrd case, reproduced verbatim here from the original audiotape.
A nod must go to actor Trey Albright, who transforms himself from a cruel prison storyteller taunting a fellow inmate (MacKay) in Natalie Gaupp's Rush, to a mildly retarded man on death row being cajoled onto the lethal-injection gurney by a protective fellow inmate (Darius Warren) in Jason Tremblay's Chicken and Ice Cream. In the latter, especially, he is remarkably authentic and touching in one of an actor's most difficult feats, expressing feeling through reaction, through the silent face alone while listening.
One final observation about M.A.N.I.F.E.S.T.O. 2001--unseen MoonWater member Brad Jackson, in a deep voice somewhere between a carnival barker and a paid preacher delivering a eulogy, wonders aloud at the beginning and end of the show as lights swirl around the painted sets: "Where do you stand?" At least half of these presentations are too purposefully circular to take a position, a dance that manages to be both refreshing and frustrating, while the other half seem steadfastly against state-sponsored killing. For the record, I'm against capital punishment, too, but I wonder if there isn't a talented playwright somewhere who could give eloquent voice to either the free-floating rage that inspires death penalty support or, at least, the unmanageable grief that drives victims' families to want to watch the killers of their loved ones die. And if that playwright existed, would he or she be included in this company's collection? At the moment, MoonWater Theater hasn't polished its own act or taken sufficient technical control of its space at the Ridglea to bother about divergent viewpoints too much. But if it's truly interested in using theater to challenge us with unconventional takes on talked-to-death topics, it ought to be willing to find some truth--or just a bit of sincerity--so we can understand the source of populist sentiments.
M.A.N.I.F.E.S.T.O. 2001 runs through June 10 at the Ridglea Theatre, 6025 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth. Call (817) 738-9500.