Death by metaphor

"What is a battery?" Rip asks his apprentice, Stan.
"Two cells placed in a container, one dominant and one recessive," Stan answers in a flat and dutiful tone, as if he were studying to appear on the TV quiz show Jeopardy.

This is the definition that Rip, the repair man of all things electric, has been drilling into his dull student. The definition also applies not so subtly to their friendship, a symbiosis that has hints of the central relationships in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and even Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Only hints, however, or mere allusions. Daniel Therriault's Battery falls far short of classic for many reasons, the most obvious being its desperately hyperbolic use of words and images. The playwright employs the electro-shock school of language--increase the current until the audience begs for mercy.

The story of one man molding another into his own image is obviously not an original premise. Therriault does break new ground, however, when his self-absorbed electrician with delusions of grandeur becomes the mentor of a mentally ill man. In this fantasy world, Rip essentially cures Stan, through his own research and homemade brew of electro-shock therapy.

In the inevitable twist, the grassroots therapy goes beyond a simple cure: Stan is a new, independent man full of life and vigor who now stands up to Rip. Gone is the gopher who brings Rip's morning coffee and listens to his sexual exploits, gone is the emotional punching bag. Stan has been reborn, and he ultimately abandons Rip and his abusive paternalism. Yet in Rip's world view, he has created a monster. He wants his old Stan back.

It's an interesting story, if a little too pat. The big problem here is the abuse of language, and the overarching sense of the words "battery" and "electricity" as central, albeit hackneyed, metaphors. The playwright hits the audience over the head and hard with his inflated turns of phrase. Drama does not have to be subtle, but even the most extravagantly obvious work must have some sense of nuance and humor. This work is stingy with both. It just clobbers, clobbers, clobbers.

The actors suffer through the dialogue while the audience is bludgeoned by the imagery. Rip is the biggest culprit with statements like, "she purred in idle...even smelled like burnt rubber." He waxes ad nauseam on the crucial role of the electrician and how life is "adapting till death." Stan nods vacantly. Meanwhile, Rip's girlfriend, Brandy (played by Charlotte Akin) compares Stan to a "broken appliance," telling Rip he uses Stan "like a tool."

Therriault could take a few lessons from writer Eric Overmyer (Dark Rapture, On The Verge)--Therriault can create a clever phrase, but the wordplay becomes a dragged-out game--and his characters, steeped in cliche, are stock.

That said, Jim Jorgensen does a great job as Rip, a character that seems to have been created and later rejected by the writers from the long-defunct Laverne and Shirley. He's a working-class existentialist bully until it comes to women, and then he's a horror date from Love Connection--the guy who thinks he's smooth as silk but wears floodwater pants. He's meant to be a buffoon, but we're not given any opportunities to laugh at him.

Akin, for her part, is a walk-on from Grease. She will certainly win a worst costume award from somebody (perhaps me) for the catch me-fuck me getups she dons in Battery, in a look that suggests "The Jetsons" meet Madonna. In her first scene with Rip, Brandy wears a wig reminiscent of Uma Thurman's in Pulp Fiction, a tight red sweater, black lace stockings under black ankle socks, and black and red stiletto heels. Unfortunately, she walks like John Wayne on stilts. Not that we're supposed to take her seriously--but the talented Akin nonetheless seems at sea with this material.

David Stroh's gifts are similarly squandered as Stan. It's hard to believe he's the same actor who gave the dynamite performance of a severely disabled man in Keeping Tom Nice. Late in this play, the audience is told that Stan is manic depressive, but there's some lack of clarity here in the acting and Bruce Coleman's direction. Stroh acts more like a borderline mentally retarded adult than a manic depressive. He doesn't display any particularly manic episodes or bouts of depression, just a general dullness and malaise--and one alarming episode of violence--that could be associated with many intellectual or emotional disorders. His rapid recovery from this vague illness ("I'm going to study physics") and his newfound connection with Brandy is too much to take.

In the end, Battery's cell blocks are dry, and the engine never quite turns over.

New Theatre Company's Battery runs through December 10 at The Swiss Avenue Theater Center. For information call 522-0843.

It's hard to maintain a childlike wonder about the holiday season when the mall becomes the center of all things. It's especially hard for critics not to be bah-humbug curmudgeons this time of year when all the artistic fare seems to be spawned in a mall: it's all the same holiday-themed, anemic, cash-cow productions that get repackaged year after year.

The exception for this critic is The Nutcracker. It is, of course, a most brazen cash cow, but it's so much more. When it is well produced, the ballet brings out the healthy inner child (even if you don't have one). When it's badly produced, it can still be enchanting if the dancing snowflakes don't trip on the falling snow or the growing tree doesn't fall over (both of which I've seen happen).

Both Ballet Dallas and the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet are performing the work this month. It is worth seeing both--preferably with children. If you don't have any, rent some for this special occasion and you'll find yourself approaching a genuine holiday spirit. (Ballet Dallas performs at the Majestic Theatre, FWD in Fort Worth, and then Fair Park Music Hall.)

The Nutcracker is every ballet company's most profitable production, so it's hard to believe that the ballet languished for more than 50 years--it was considered a failure long before it became a season staple. When it opened in St. Petersburg in 1892, the narrative ballet based on E.T.A. Hofman's Christmas tale was deemed an unmitigated disaster.

The critics, as jaded in the 19th century as they are today, said the ballet was for children, the music was too pretty, and the choreography obscured by stage effects. (All true, and all those criticisms are what audiences now love about the ballet.) It took the unconventional George Balanchine to resurrect the ballet with his own elaborate version. Ever since, choreographers have been tinkering and reworking the choreography, from Rudolf Nureyev's 1930s flapper version to Mark Morris' gender-bending The Hard Nut.

Why is it so successful today after being shunned 100 years ago? Balanchine himself mused that in the 20th century, people are much more interested in children, and in much less of a hurry to grow up.


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