Let Us Bray

Spirit willing, flesh (and acting) weak in WaterTower's annual Out of the Loop fest

The Devil is in the details in plays sharing the three stages at WaterTower Theatre's annual Out of the Loop Festival in Addison. He's also a big influence on some of the plots. Take Baptized to the Bone, a strange, uneven Southern gothic farce written by Dave Johnson, directed by Henry Fonte. WaterTower offers it as a "world premiere" anchoring the multi-company series of performances. Is Baptized a full-out comedy? Not really. Sharp commentary on religious hypocrisy? Not quite. About 45 minutes too long? Most definitely.

Baptized to the Bone is as confused as a Baptist at a bar mitzvah. When the lights come up on the tragically tacky living room of Gladys (Morgana Shaw) and husband Preacher (Bob Hess), she's suffering from a "vomitin' headache" and begging off going to church for the fourth week in a row. At 42, Gladys still mourns the baby she lost years before and she yearns for another. But Preacher, her husband of 25 years, is too focused on his newfound calling to the pulpit to give Gladys much attention. He has quit his job as a mill foreman to enroll in a boondocks Baptist college where Gladys, as a preacher's wife, can take art classes for free. She's bored, sad and lonely.

Preacher's car has barely cleared the gravel driveway when Gladys' Sunday morning visitor, Ottis (Glenn Franklin), the young male model from life drawing class, drops in for a weekly commandment-breaking session. Like a car-hop Maggie the Cat, Gladys is all hormones and hominy grits as she makes love and lunch with her slow-witted stud. He lives in a truck and dreams of going to Broadway to produce and star in the "world's first gospel poetry opera," but he's too dumb to realize the preacher's wife is using him as a sperm donor. With Gladys pushing all the buttons, Ottis' elevator stalls far short of the top floor.

Don't look for this heavenly chest in Baptized to the Bone at WaterTower Theatre.
Scott Guenther
Don't look for this heavenly chest in Baptized to the Bone at WaterTower Theatre.

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That set-up is promising. Piety, adultery, half-naked nooky on the couch. Gladys reminds Ottis that there's a cabinet full of guns and knives nearby, a semaphore from the playwright that bloodshed is imminent. Gladys even lets it slip that she and Preacher have 20 grand in savings for the hoped-for baby. Ottis wants to get his greasy paws on that money, and it turns out he is tight with the Preacher in ways the seminary probably would frown on. A blackmail plot gets hatched.

Just as it's starting to get interesting, Baptized goes soggy. Toward intermission Preacher actually delivers a lengthy sermon full of holy rollin' clichés, a sequence that is neither needed nor enjoyable. The second half of the play stumbles all over itself trying to decide whether to be full-out comedy or a murderous satire. There's one fun little scene where the three characters dash in and out of doors, waving loaded pistols at each other (and the audience, gulp), but it becomes sloppy and cartoonish. That should be the climax, but no, there's more. Gladys becomes hysterical, screaming at Preacher to impregnate her while he fights her off singing "Jesus Loves Me." She's cussing like a she-devil, he's praying at the top of his lungs and the audience is silently wishing for all of it to end.

Of the three cast members, Morgana Shaw as Gladys acquits herself most admirably. She's a feisty little critter. Think Bette Davis in Petrified Forest. As Preacher, Bob Hess appears dazed and confused as a man with inner demons driving him into ministry for the wrong reasons. His Preacher exhibits little chemistry in clinches with either Gladys or Ottis. As Ottis, Glenn Franklin is utterly useless. He's supposed to be playing a young hustler so dark and seductive he drives two people to lie, cheat, steal and possibly murder to be with him. But this guy is more spud than stud. There's a crucial difference between portraying a bad actor and actually being one. Franklin is the latter, pale, spongy and bland--a human Twinkie.


The presence of the Devil himself does little to liven up three spiritually themed new one-acts grouped together for the Out of the Loop Festival under the title Right Around Here. Presented by Rover Dramawerks, the plays deal obliquely with the afterlife and earthly temptations.

Greasy Spork, written by Marc B. Rouse and directed by Robin Armstrong, is a Twilight Zone-y episode that finds two couples (Jack Birdwell, Misty Baptiste, Allison McCorkle, Bobby Selah) stuck in a cafe near some remote off-ramp from the highway to heaven. Or is that hell? Their guide appears, a grizzled coot named Gustav (Tex Marshall), and he ain't tellin'. He goes into a long explanation about the couples being "stuck in a plane of existence" at this restaurant at the end of the universe. None of it makes a lick of sense.

Then comes Every Now and Then at 4th and Main, a longer one-act by Jason Rice, directed by Misty Baptiste. Two inebriated homeless gents (Ken Freehill, Lee Irving) harass passersby with unintelligible rants. But when they're alone, they speak to each other like sober Ph.D.'s arguing "the greater aesthetic value of the adaptive creature." That's about all I got on this one before falling into a refreshing 10-minute nap during which I dreamed I tried to sell my soul to Beelzebub in exchange for never having to sit through another talky, amateurish drama. No sale, judging from The Pitch, written by Matthew J. Edwards and directed by Kenneth Fulenwider. This one's about an insurance salesman (Mark Servis) who bargains his own soul to get a well-dressed, mysterious stranger (Jack Birdwell) to sign up for a high-dollar policy. A predictable, gimmicky ending ruins what might have been a thought-provoking take on a soulless industry.

Over in the little Stone Cottage theater, a new group of college drama grads calling themselves singleTree theatre enters the Out of the Loop fest with Rites of Relationship. Four one-acts by famous playwrights comprise the program, all looking at the problems that bedevil married couples.

In Shel Silverstein's The Lifeboat Is Sinking, Jen (Jaynie Saunders) dares husband Sherwin (Lance Currie) to admit whom he would throw overboard in a hypothetical emergency--her, their daughter or his mother? It's a no-win situation for Sherwin, whose every answer causes Jen to explode. It's a no-win for the singleTree players, too. Directed by Amber Werley, they shriek their lines and flail their arms. This script calls for sly delivery and a light touch, not slam-bang slapstick.

Ditto One Tennis Shoe, also by Silverstein and also directed by Werley. Rather than let the New Yorker-style humor sneak up on the audience in this conversation between husband and wife about her tendency to hoard found objects in a Bloomingdale's shopping bag, actors Greg MacPherson and Jamie Korthase go over the top and around the bend.

At Home by Michael Weller, directed by Chad Tiller, is a laborious one-act about a couple (Saunders, Nick Orand) repetitiously arguing and making up while waiting for dinner guests. Problem here is the actors' tendency to play into every emotion, instead of against them. They act like self-conscious actors on a stage, instead of real people at their own dining table. Saunders tries to set the plates down sadly. Orand drinks his fake wine angrily. People don't behave that way. Only bad actors do.

Bill Sebastian teams up with Korthase for a more successful shorty, The Problem by A.R. Gurney. The actors are so young they look like kids playing dress-up, but at least they play nicely together in this bubbly scene about a college prof, his sophisticated wife and her very swollen belly, which they suddenly seem to have noticed. The play offers deliciously biting commentary on limousine-liberal attitudes. The actors deliver Gurney's lines crisply and coolly. Of all the singleTree players, these two do not chew the minimal scenery to shreds.

One sign of beginner actors and directors is their tendency to let mispronounced words get into performances. No one in this group seems to have been clued that "Pierre Cardin" should not rhyme with "harden" or that "frisson" doesn't rhyme with "mission." Details, kids, details.

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