By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Saturday night, my ears rang from a boot to the forehead provided by One Good Beating, the dramatic highlight of 2001's Festival of Independent Theatres.
Theatre Quorum's look at a grown-up brother and sister attempting to avenge childhood wounds inflicted by their poisonous father rose a little above the ranks of a solidly compelling FIT. That, and the fact this marks the play's American premiere, charges the production with even more of a sense of discovery. Director Carl Savering found this one-act in a collection of Scottish scripts; playwright Linda McLean is one of Scotland's foremost developers of new material, thanks to her work with Paines Plough Theatre and Traverse Theatre. Savering has conducted his thrilling trio of actors to generate spiky laughter that's slowly pulled into an undertow of sadness and self-loathing.
The quick-tempered Elaine (Lissa Creola) has pressured her meek brother Stephen (Pat Watson) into ambushing and locking their cruel father, Robert (T.A. Taylor), inside the coal shed, where he will receive the eponymous punishment for his most recent injurious insult: He has buried their mother in a cardboard coffin. "She was an environmentalist," a scowling Robert flippantly explains as he gnaws on an apple; Taylor, an actor who never has to sweat or fret while reaching for the right emotion, here uses that coolness to raise the hair on our arms. His Robert is an accomplished sadist who makes us believe he doled out the family beatings sparingly to maintain that tight leash of mere threat. And it still works. Elaine has inherited her father's fury, and her genuine rage makes her sample that power and collapse under memories of the equally rare affections Robert showed her. Meanwhile, Stephen is the one who's "thick" like his mother; he's a librarian, a mouse, and by Robert's contemptuous hints, effeminate to boot.
As the play progresses, it's almost unbearable to watch these three repeat old family patterns on the Bath House stage; Watson shakes and stammers without the least bit of affectation, while the hypnotic Creola cries tears as the stage lights go down that continued well into the curtain call. There's a universe of hurtful authenticity, of what Sylvia Plath called "the love of the rack and the screw," in One Good Beating. Theatre Quorum unleashes it with great discipline (even the Scottish brogues are killer) and without mercy.
The comic luminary of FIT is, oddly, a similar beast in a nasty mood if different in shape--Cara Mia Theatre uses a loose, audience-interactive collection of sketches that take some corrosive loads of bigotry and sprays them at the audience like seltzer bottles.
Latinologues, written by Californian Rick Najera and directed by Marisela Barrera, stars Marco Rodriguez and Otis Gray (who both acts and plays keyboards throughout) as a series of characters who are ultimately united by the playwright's desire to show that Hispanics are as diverse and quarrelsome as...well, Anglos, who are rarely saddled with the pressures that the word "community" brings. Rodriguez plays, among others, a blond performance artist with a banana in his body suit and pointed opinions of the dispensability of a murdered gang tagger; a closeted, fair-skinned Latino actor at an audition listing his credits ("Titanico. It was about 20 Cubans on a raft with a slow leak."); and a shallow cable-access hostess with a love/hate attraction to Latin machismo. Gray remains mostly a sidekick, except for his role as the Mexican Moses, expounding the 10 Latino commandments ("Though shalt get insurance...only, you know, if you need it") while he discovers that his people--Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, Mexicans--can't agree on a promised land. Latinologues boasts a quick succession of bona fide howlers, if you give yourself permission to drop your own racial uneasiness--are you willing to laugh at Martin Luther King Jr. being inspired to write "I Have a Dream" by a bucket of KFC?--and appreciate the crack timing of Rodriguez and Gray's heavy-artillery exchanges. One thing's for certain: Cara Mia has brought the most dangerous entry to this year's FIT.
Prophetic as he's now recognized to be concerning Russia's Soviet revolution, Anton Chekhov has been performed so often that he's now less a Cassandra of Communism than a character-driven chronicler of ennui. If you catch the staging of his 1893 one-act The Proposal by Bucket Productions, and that's all the Chekhov you've ever seen, you might assume he led a happy career as a wacky farceur. Sometimes translated as The Marriage Proposal, it also has a subtitle--A Joke in One-Act--in which Chekhov lets you know he's loosened up, so you should, too. Appealing and light as a drop cloth, the piece concerns the attempts of Lomov (Eric Levy), an anxiety-ridden landowner who believes he has a heart condition, to propose to Natasha (Jennifer Biddall), daughter of his neighbor Chubukov (J.M. Williams). The traditional parental obstacle isn't the problem; Chubukov is thrilled at the imminent betrothal. It's just that Natasha and Lomov can't contain their childish stubbornness long enough to get around to the asking and the accepting. Does a piece of land belong to her father or her future husband? Is his dog Rover a finer, nobler specimen than her beloved Tracker? Chubukov must constantly come between playground spats--and Lomov's worsening panic attacks--to see the two together.
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