Apocalypse right now

It has often been written that while film is a director's medium, theater is the province of the actor. Except for that phenomenon known as "director's theater"--on the plus side, the current New York productions of Cabaret and Swan Lake and, on the minus side, Franco Zefferilli's recent animal-costumed, boo-inspiring opera disaster at the Met--stage directors often leave their mark not so much for what they do as for what they prevent. Indeed, a prominent director in town who has worked all over the country once told me that every show contains at least one mistake in casting, because those decisions are made so much on fallible instinct and intuition. Pondering this, you realize stage directors are cheerleaders, counselors, and editors, modulating performances that are ready to spring forth once the actor lays his or her eyes on the script. Unless, say, an entire cast is screwing up, or heading in different directions, the director's ass is not on the line for problems that happen in the middle of a production. The tech crew can be completely incompetent too, and although the annoyed theater patron might note this, it will still, unfortunately, be the actor whose unflattering reflection the audience sees, because actors are--for better and for worse--our mirrors. We come to the theater to see ourselves.

Although it's a genuine delight to see theater happen again inside Don Blanton and Melissa Sauvage's Deep Ellum Center for the Arts, especially theater like Steve Tesich's startling tragicomedy On the Open Road, I spent part of the time trying to finger the blame--director? actors? techies?--for a rough performance. And in this case, the director, Jose Armando, was on stage--he was also co-star, right up there on the front lines. He smartly chose the kind of script that upturns almost every basic foundation you could build your world on and so winds up squarely in the lap of blasphemy, whether you're a hyper-educated atheist or a Christian dangling from high hopes. Regrettably, there were parallel sets of chaos happening at this theater venue last Friday night, one onstage and the other offstage. The onstage tumult was a fictional world, set far in the future at the intersection of two oft-prophesied events--the end of civilization after war and the Second Coming of Christ.

Unfortunately, there was also the chaos of crippling sound and light problems. The small audience wasn't even sure when intermission came, because the lights didn't come up--an announcement had to be made. It was unclear whether these troubles were the result of operator error or the equipment itself, but the show was significantly marred. And the actors who soldiered forward took the brunt of it, and, you suspect, might even have been trying to compensate for the confusion. A couple of performers were pitched a bit over the top, although ultimately the spirited cast managed to put forth the playwright's provocative ideas just effectively enough. Indeed, the patient, attentive viewer might leave the Deep Ellum Center with a couple of haunting images that only a surgeon's knife could remove during the following days.

Playwright Steve Tesich is most famous for his 1980 screenplay Breaking Away, but that celebrated underdog saga was on the lighter end of the writer's dark musings. Tesich, who died in 1996, often visited the idea of individuals yearning for some ideal, but his plays usually revealed these feelings to be either corrupt indoctrinations from some higher bureaucracy (Tesich, a Serbian immigrant, came to America and became disenchanted with our government and culture) or fragile hopes that people cling to while the important stuff passes them by.

The latter is the case with On the Open Road, in which two mismatched travelers make their way across an unnamed land laid waste by a civil war. Al (Jose Armando) is a bespectacled intellectual who pushes a shopping cart full of paintings by Picasso and Munch that he's managed to salvage. He encounters petty criminal Angel (Eliud Castillo), about to hang for his sins, and cuts the rope so that Angel may be his servant. The pair makes the journey through dangerous occupied countryside, stopping in bombed-out churches and museums to collect remnants of art, music, history, and philosophy. They are seeking the Land of the Free, where, Al promises the orphaned Angel, "everyone has a mother and a father." There is much conflict between the two, but also education, as the "mentor" (which Al insists Angel call him) teaches the "scum" (the designation for the criminal underclass involved in the vague civil uprisings) all he knows about Western thought and expression. They wind up getting captured and are coerced into a mission that takes them to a monastery overseen by a sarcastic monk (John Flores). Their assignment? To assassinate none other than Jesus Christ (Josh Raymond Hurst), who has returned to earth to collect his believers but has been detained by the newly installed government.  

Set designer Lorenzo Avila has proven how tightly wound a shoestring budget can be by draping the stage's backdrop with black plastic for On the Open Road, a cheap effect that doubles nicely as bleakly apocalyptic. As a performer, Jose Armando doesn't always hit the right notes, straining through moments that are clearly meant to be humorous or poignant. His work as director appears both canny and incomplete, although you wonder how much he and his actors were forced to stray when confronted with some unexpected gaffes. Eliud Castillo and John Flores are funnier in the play's comic-relief moments, which are more numerous than you might guess from reading a synopsis, but a little less shouting in the emotive moments would be nice.

Once again, a fair appraisal of this modest production's potential is impossible because of the sound and lights, which sometimes didn't come on when they were supposed to and sometimes cut off suddenly. The second act more indelibly captures Steve Tesich's themes, and it stirred one of the creepiest and most cutting critiques of Christian faith you'll likely encounter. Jesus is presented here not as a prophet but as a musician--a cellist. He never speaks in this show, only plays his instrument in the corner, with head bowed. And he plays the same mournful note over and over. This sound fills much of the second act, and puts forward the playwright's notion that just as intellectuals overplay the healing power of art and language at the expense of life, so do the faithful squander their own lives depending upon eternal salvation. "Jesus died for our sins," the monk chides Al and Angel, trying to justify the savior's assassination. "We die for nothing. Jesus is the epitome of the artist, immune to applause." Passion without purpose is the greatest hell, the playwright says, and maybe we got the raw deal when Jesus was crucified--not the son of God. Would that the rest of this On the Open Road rose to the challenge of such searing propositions.

On the Open Road runs through January 30. Call (214) 744-2787.

The waiter whose real job is actor may be the oldest joke in the world. The waiter whose real job is musician might be the second-oldest joke. Dallas actor-musician Max Hartman works days as a waiter at Terilli's, and at night he performs with the band Too Much TV and acts with some of the area's top theater companies. Certainly it requires a sense of humor to live such an overactive life, which might explain Hartman's killer comic timing in recent productions. His life may have been the subject of jokes, but his crisp talent is a dead-serious thing to behold--even when he makes you laugh.

"Drama is considered easier, because everyone likes to connect to those emotions," says Hartman, munching during a break at his Terilli's gig, "and people say comedy is harder, more of a craft, because of the timing thing. I like comedy because I've always instinctively fed off the need to make people laugh. I hate seeing people in uncomfortable situations, so my first instinct is to crack a joke to make them feel better."

Anyone who caught his long, priceless "bagel" monologue in Aaron Ginsburg's Straight Jacket and Tie or his clownish scampering in Kitchen Dog's The Taming of the Shrew can vouch that this actor can earn a relatively small role from casting directors but steal the whole show. Hartman, a 26-year-old Dallas native, has gone into theater overdrive during the last two and a half years since he returned from College Station, where he majored in psychology at Texas A&M. His band, Head West, came from those days, and later evolved into the "project" Too Much TV, but his area theater ties were forged during a freshman year spent at SMU studying theater. It was no fluke--Hartman studied theater all four years at Lake Highlands High School.

"I've been acting pretty much constantly since I was 12," says Hartman, "whether it was school or church groups or community theater. Although I can't say I was burned out, I wanted to experience the normal college scene, without the rehearsals and all that 'actor guy' stuff. But psychology brought me back to performing again."

Hartman has tackled roles that required some fairly subtle psychological maneuvers. In The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, he says he "doubled up a commedia character beneath a Shakespeare character," referring to the 400-year-old Italian slapstick that director Aaron Ginsburg applied to the script. Hartman's Shakespearean character was named Biondello, but his uncredited commedia character was Scapino, a stock Italian creation that came with a designated stance: "He's always bending over, head tilted. What research Aaron could find said he was 'fleet of foot, always looking for a handout; sometimes scheming, always looking to flee at a moment's notice.'"  

Right now, Hartman continues his financially necessitated stint as a daytime waiter to allow performance and rehearsal time for two upcoming productions: Soul Rep's February show Why the Trees Bleed in Tuskegee, directed by SMU classmate and DTC regular Khary Payton, and the Undermain's Polaroid Stories, to be presented in March. At the same time he's acting in the Soul Rep show, he'll be rehearsing the Undermain's. In fall '97, the latter troupe provided his first full-scale production since he returned from College Station. It was Chekhov's The Seagull, and it was a small role. Hartman didn't mind.

"I attacked [the role of Yakov] like it was Hamlet," he says with a laugh, "because it was the first thing I'd done in a while. My character basically carried luggage from one end of the stage to the other, but I found a motivation for him to carry that luggage. I convinced myself The Seagull was actually written through the eyes of Yakov. He was the narrator who didn't narrate.

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