Misery Loves Company

Under the harsh glare of an overhead lamp, actress Amanda Denton leans forward over a small table, peers up at an unseen interrogator and asks, "Should I just speak? Is that OK? 'Cause I got to sort of ease into it, you know?"

With dull, stringy hair and eyes as dark and haunted as Andrea Yates', Denton's unnamed character in Medea Redux casually unreels her saga of being seduced at 13 by a schoolteacher and the calculated revenge she exacts on him years later for his abandonment of her and their child.

One of three short one-acts in Neil LaBute's Bash: Latterday Plays, onstage at Addison's excellent Out of the Loop Festival at the WaterTower Theatre through March 17, the beautifully acted and sensitively directed Medea Redux gives away its secret in the title. We just don't know how this young mother will kill her child or why. And when she finally does tell us, it's astonishing to realize how much real-life events can imitate and exceed artistic tragedy in ways even writers as dark as LaBute can't fathom.

Bash, sad though its three stories are, is an ironic masterpiece. Like the ancient works of Euripides that LaBute's plays were inspired by, Bash's dramas start with what appear to be normal people in normal circumstances. Then he gradually introduces dangerous undertones and reveals his characters to be murderers without regret. Each play ends with a gut-crushing twist of fate, with no deus ex machina to save the day.

In Iphigenia in Orem, a rumpled businessman (Terry Martin) flops into a hotel chair and engages an unseen stranger in rambling conversation. Only toward the end of his cliché-ridden monologue does it emerge that this wholesome Mormon family man has committed an unspeakable crime. "I'm only going to tell this once," he confesses, and he does it without shedding a tear.

In A Gaggle of Saints, a giddy Boston College couple (Regan Adair, Amanda Denton) deliver parallel accounts of their weekend in Manhattan. She bubbles on about the taffeta she wore and the pretty rooms at the Plaza where she and her girlfriends napped after the party. He recalls, with escalating excitement, sneaking off in the wee hours to Central Park to lure and then viciously assault a gay man. As a trophy, he steals a gold ring from the victim's finger and presents it later to the girl, who can't believe her luck in landing such a perfect, romantic guy. Only we know that their future marriage certainly will be doomed by his violent secret.

Euripides, writing around 430 B.C., was considered a genius of tragicomedies. His plays, including Medea and two about the sacrifice of Iphigenia, were revolutionary and controversial in their time, attacking the social, political and religious status quo. While his contemporaries wrote popular dramas celebrating heroic characters and mythological gods, Euripides, an atheist, preferred dramatizing the lives of homely, ordinary people faced with tragic circumstances and life-altering decisions.

LaBute, a graduate of Brigham Young University, takes on his own Mormon church the way Euripides did the worship of Dionysus. In nearly all of LaBute's work (including his films In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors), he peppers the dialogue with references to Mormonism. In Bash, characters mention mission trips and "relief society" meetings. The Orem businessman sips ice water, not liquor, as he talks of murder. Inside even the most devoutly religious man or woman, says LaBute, lies the capacity for evil. Dittos to Euripides.

WaterTower's production of Bash is moment-for-moment as good as Showtime's TV version a couple of years back (the one that proved Calista Flockhart can actually act). In a theater space so intimate the actors are barely an arm's reach from the audience, director Mark D. Fleischer has insisted on realistic pacing, soft vocal delivery and economy of movement. Every performance is close to perfect, particularly sad-eyed Terry Martin in Iphigenia in Orem and Denton in both Saints and Medea. Fleischer wisely has switched the usual running order of the three plays, leaving Denton's deeply affecting Medea for last.

Euripides is getting a lot of props at Addison's festival. Besides the LaBute plays, the old Greek gets a nod from a funny new one-act, The Temple of Dionysus by Dallas playwright James Venhaus. Produced by Ground Zero Theater Company, which champions local dramatists, Temple finds Euripides' much-despised Dionysus, Greek god of wine, mystic ecstasy and fertility, looking for new followers among 21st-century hedonists.

To stir up interest in his revival, Dionysus (Matthew Halterman) hires a Dilbert-like corporate ad man named Steve (Josh Hepola). Soon Steve has Dionysus lined up for chats on Larry King Live and Nightline, with corporate sponsorship by Coors and Trojan. He makes infomercials and sells memberships that come with attractive tote bags. A chain of franchised Dionysian Temple & Grills go up under the slogan "You sacrifice it, we grill it." Charlie Sheen and Robert Downey Jr. sign on as high priests.

Steve promises the god he'll rise to the level of other "modern religious icons...the Beatles and Bill Gates."

Throughout the play, a rather pushy Greek chorus (Patrick Watson, Jennifer Holloway and David Carter, swiftly popping in and out of dozens of roles) tries to interrupt, but nobody's ready to hear their voices of reason. That is, until the beloved and bewitching god of advertising, none other than Darren Stephens himself, appears to tell Steve a thing or two about good ol' honesty.

It's all a clever if not particularly sophisticated indictment of media, advertising, religion and pop psychology. If it doesn't make a huge impression, well, neither do those skits on A Prairie Home Companion, but they usually have a few good lines worth repeating later on.

Oddly juxtaposed at the festival as a two-fer with Temple of Dionysus is Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes, an oblique, disturbing one-act that hints of a different kind of Medea-like tragedy.

In a seemingly random conversation between a middle-aged husband, Devlin (Kent Williams), and his wife, Rebecca (Theo Lane Moffett), she begins to tease about a long-ago lover. With the mystery man, she says, she played sadistic sexual games that included domination and strangulation.

Details emerge, drawn out under intense questioning by Devlin, and the scenario starts to sound like the memories of a Holocaust survivor. Was her "lover" actually an SS man? Was the "bundle" she tossed away a baby she had to sacrifice in a Sophie's choice moment at a train station? Are these even her memories, or is Rebecca entering the soul of a Jewish mother haunting this sun-drenched drawing room?

In the background are sounds of European-style police sirens and train engines. Are these real or part of Rebecca's memory?

With Pinter, one never knows. The meanings of his plays are to be found not in the words but in the pauses and gestures. And there are plenty of those in this one-act.

Theatre Quorum's production of Ashes to Ashes has some fine moments between the actors, who manage their British accents expertly. But director Carl Savering often places one of them with his or her back to the audience, which doesn't help when the dialogue is particularly obscure. He does create one brilliant and memorable visual when Devlin, determined to get the truth from his wife, carefully removes his tweed jacket and slooooowly rolls up the sleeves of his sweater. When he turns to walk back to her for one final interrogation, you can almost hear the click of jackbooted heels.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner