Theater

Mean and Lean

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What's deceptive is calling this show an "operetta"--you might even go so far as to call this a self-deception on the author's part. Margraff was surely being ironic using that word in the subtitle, as it usually refers to the frothiest, most deliriously romantic operas Italy has produced. But there's the creeping sense that what might've been a little bait and switch on the playwright's part for fellowship, grant, and workshop purposes gained a head of steam that eventually clouded her vision. Margraff said up front she was messing with the shape of a 17th-century European stage form (How ambitious! How fund-worthy!), perhaps knowing she would then deliver nothing more than a play with songs--and half of those are self-conscious at best, extraneous at worst. At some point, was Margraff herself so enamored with coupling "operetta" with the half-rhyme adjectives "electric and hysteric" that she eventually convinced herself that she was pouring vintage wine into a wacky, modern new bottle? Not so fast. Wallpaper Psalm is a discordant musical with pretensions that sometimes succeed, although ultimately at the expense of what might've been a purer, more potent shock from the brain's memory synapses if Margraff had rocked steady on her voyage into the great storm-tossed ocean of sibling vagaries. As it is now, Undermain actors and audience spend too much time dumping unnecessary cargo to get there.

Wallpaper Psalm runs through February 14. Call (214) 747-5515.

Banter

Beastie girl
We turn now from a chaotic nightmare play to a tight and traditional fable with a witty heart. Lean Theater's spry and very funny production of Lloyd's Prayer, about to enter its final weekend at the basement space in Theatre Three known as Theatre Too, skews reality too, but the purely imaginative complications that bedevil the misfits in this show were conceived to teach us a moral. Kevin Kling's script borrows a heroine from the "feral child" legend (infant raised by animals) of many countries as well as characters and situations from the Old Testament, then jazzes them up with the kind of one-liners with which playwright Paul Rudnick, when playing Hollywood script doctor, supports his antique-furniture habit. There are jabs at pop feminism, infomercials, daytime magazine shows, and televangelism. It all culminates in a gentle-hearted, occasionally foul-mouthed affirmation that, well, if you have a Beast Girl in your life, let her know you love her.

Indeed, the parallel between Bobbi the Beast Girl (Nance Watkins), raised from infancy by raccoons, and our own occasional beastliness to our friends and lovers is drawn explicitly by Lloyd P. Jones (Thurman Moss), a recently paroled ex-con turned preacher. "You want to look away, because when you look at Bobbi, you see yourselves," he snarls dramatically to the crowd that assembles to see his tent revival with Bobbi peering pitifully out from a cage.

This wandering opportunist had accidentally discovered the raccoon girl, whose limited vocabulary comes from imitating words she's heard from Martha (Mary Lyons) and Henry (Marc Hebert), the couple who've taken her in and cared for her. Their passionless marriage has led Henry to pay rather more attention to their dog Princess than is healthy, neglecting his wife and the Beast Girl. Bobbi, who makes people scream when they see her (95 percent of her body is covered with hair) and has a taste for human flesh, travels on the evangelical circuit with Lloyd in an arrangement so grossly exploitative, the Angel of the Lord (Lyons again) must swoop down and intervene with threats from a plague-and-pestilence-prone angry God.

Lloyd's Prayer has been staged often across the country since it premiered back at the Humana Festival in 1988, but even if some of the targets in this play have since been filled full of holes in popular satire's shooting gallery, the script revives your interest with sheer cleverness. After wearily recounting the long list of factors he can't discriminate against in this age of minority-protection policies, a boss (Hebert) declares to Bobbi as she applies for a job, "We've got goat boys and sheep women out there. We don't like it, but it's the law."

And Lean Theater, the company steered by Theatre Three regulars Thurman Moss and Sharon Bunn currently gearing up to schedule full seasons again, maintains that interest with a very appealing cast who understand comic timing under director William Peyton. The company's title says it all--this is theater of frugal means but wicked methods. I can't imagine it being funnier if they'd trained a real dog, or hired a puppeteer, or designed a prop to portray Princess, the beloved pooch of Bobbi's adoptive father--as is, Marc Hebert coos and frolics with an imaginary animal and supplies its excited yip-yip-yips himself between his dialogue.

As Bobbi the Beast Girl, Nance Watkins does a marvelous job of conveying a wide variety of emotions through the scrim of a furry, nocturnal scavenger's sensibility: Even without the raccoon stripe across her face, she has eyes like some night creature, so brown they're black and reflecting stage lights as well as cunning. Mary Lyons has a marvelous monologue she delivers by Bobbi's cage, peeling potatoes and predicting the furry girl's trajectory from disappointing prom night to lesbianism. Lean Theater's Lloyd's Prayer is wry but never bitchy, and just compassionate enough to make the meringue sentiments melt in your mouth before they can give you diabetes.

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Jimmy Fowler