No Strings Attached

Wooden acting all around--and not just in Stage West's brittle Puppet Boy

Good live theater can work on you like a shot of joy juice. When everything clicks the way it did in Kitchen Dog Theater's recent Cloud Tectonics or Jubilee Theatre's current Diaries of a Barefoot Diva, you can't wait to see another show so you can feel that magic buzz again.

But not every production delivers the happy vibes. There are bombs, flops, stinkeroonies. Shows that seem to drain your body of all its essential nutrients with every slow-moving scene. Drecky performances and sloppy writing that leave you mentally and physically spent, toting up how many hours a particular playhouse owes you for time wasted in its dank environs.

This week's openings made for three life-force-suckers in a row: Stage West's Puppet Boy, Undermain's Waiting for a Train: The Life and Songs of Jimmie Rodgers and Richardson Theatre Centre's Rumors. Collectively, these represent many of the worst offenses actors, directors and playwrights can commit, their biggest sin being a failure to entertain.

Note to Bruce Dubose:  If you want to play Jimmie Rodgers, learn how to yodel.
Note to Bruce Dubose: If you want to play Jimmie Rodgers, learn how to yodel.

Take Puppet Boy. Please. Fort Worth's Stage West commissioned 26-year-old Dallas playwright Lee Trull to re-imagine Pinocchio in some edgy new way. Trull has had some success as a writer and actor here, turning out an elegant adaptation of O. Henry's Gift of the Magi for Classical Acting Company. With Puppet Boy Trull presents children's theater filtered through Brechtian nightmare. He sets the fairy tale in Mussolini's Italy, with repeated allusions to flames and fire. Fun.

Jason Thomas Mayfield is the live actor--using that term loosely--who plays the wooden boy who longs to be made fully human. Pinocchio's old man, woodcarver Geppetto (Jerry Russell), is a drunk, living in squalor. His wife has bolted (and who could blame her?), so in a gesture perhaps only Michael Jackson could relate to, Geppetto relieves his loneliness by whittling two large puppets with which to play Daddy. The girl he uses for firewood soon enough. He turns his affections to the lad, wishing aloud that he could have a real son.

In pops a blue-haired fairy (Dana Schultes) to grant Geppetto's wish. Sort of. First Pinocchio has to run away from Fascist authorities, become lost in a forest, get robbed and tortured by Cat and Fox (Sachin Patel, Justin Flowers), be swallowed by a giant dogfish (piece of painted cardboard) and spat out on a beach.

As he wanders around the minimalist set (designed by director Jim Covault with all the kid-friendly charm of an empty closet), Pinocchio poses questions such as, "Why is the sky blue?" and "Should I invest in real estate or art?" He meets a talking cricket (Michael Corolla) and squashes him under his shoe. The cricket returns later as a ghost in a beige trench coat and does...not much.

Besides the stiff acting of its lead actor, who plays Pinocchio like a talking Pee Wee Herman doll whose batteries are running down, Puppet Boy has pacing problems. Between lines come pauses gypsy caravans could roll through. Somebody says five words. Pause. Tick, tick, tick. Then, at bloody long last, just before you rise from your seat on the next to last row and scream, "For the love of God! Say something! Anything to get this turkey moving!," somebody onstage utters another inane chunk of dialogue. Then they stop talking again and do nada for a really long time. Pinocchio meets Harold Pinter. It could only be worse if it were a musical. Or a movie by Steven Spielberg starring Haley Joel Osment.

What a waste of the wonderful Jerry Russell, who founded Stage West in 1979. His performance in the title role of Contemporary Theatre of Dallas' Visiting Mr. Green was one of the sublime pleasures of 2005. Playing Geppetto he has very little to do and spends only a few minutes interacting onstage with Pinocchio. Lucky.

For way too long Undermain Theatre has rested on its laurels, whatever those once might have been. Was this company ever really good? Now in their 22nd season they seem to have lost whatever momentum they might once have had, offering a half-baked "world premiere" of Waiting for a Train: The Life and Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, a pastiche built around the music of the Depression Era singer-songwriter whose best-known tunes are "T for Texas" and "In the Jailhouse Now." Undermain's main man, Bruce DuBose, wrote and stars in the piece, and his wife, Katherine Owens, directed, meaning there was no one around who candidly could tell these two that the whole enterprise is terrible from start to finish.

Not that Jimmie Rodgers doesn't deserve a tribute. He wasn't as good a songwriter as, say, Woody Guthrie--Rodgers' recording career as "The Blue Yodeler" was cut short by tuberculosis in 1933--but his work has been rediscovered thanks to hillbilly licks featured in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? It's just that Waiting for a Train (Rodgers was known as "The Singing Brakeman") bungles the pickin' and grinnin' badly, and it doesn't get his life story across in any way that compels the audience to care two hoots about the man or the songs.

DuBose's script doesn't succeed at telling any story at all, and if there's one thing audiences want from an evening in the theater it's a good story to follow. Instead of a continuous storyline, DuBose cuts together vignettes, jumping back and forth in time, from the end of Rodgers' life to the beginning of his career, with several confusing zigzags in between. About the only way to keep up with where the act is in the timeline is to glance at dates projected on a screen upstage, as ham-handed a device as a movie's dependence on a voice-over to explain what's going on. DuBose even resorts to that hackiest of conventions for delivering exposition: characters reading letters aloud to themselves.

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