Morphing Drama into Comedy

Just to shorthand it: If The Simpsons did Long Day's Journey into Night, you'd have Morphing, the latest, funniest, most brilliantly perverse piece of original theater yet by Matthew Posey and his Ochre House gang.

It takes a few ticks to realize that the characters in Morphing, written, designed and directed by and starring Posey, are loosely based on the troubled Tyrones of Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer-winning tragedy. The action in Posey's production starts on a video screen, where we see father James (Posey), wife Mary (Justin Locklear), sons Jamie (Mitchell Parrack) and Edmund (Trenton Stephenson) and grandpa Boo (Kevin Grammer) crammed into a vehicle. They've just picked Mary up from a state hospital, where she was treated for morphine addiction. Mary's still fragile and the constant bickering by the old man and the boys in the back seat isn't helping her nerves.

The visuals in that live video segment grow increasingly cartoony as the family car bumps down the road. Mary, wearing a blond hairpiece coned into a tall Marge Simpson 'do, sticks her head out the window and comes back with red pigtails impaled with leaves and twigs. When they arrive at home, the action moves onstage into the parlor, a detailed replica of the coffin-like room described by O'Neill in his play. But on the screen upstage, two of the guys can still be seen in the backyard, dueling with pink plastic flamingos and garden shears.

Mixing media, fooling around with words and images, having a man playing Mary — Posey's playful imagination is fully engaged here. And as he deconstructs all four acts of the original play, with its dark family quarrels, alcohol consumption, games of solitaire and revelations of family secrets, Posey seems to be teasing the audience. How far can he go with this? How much longer can he tear into Long Day's Journey? And then in comes Rosie, a prostitute in the form of an enormous foam puppet (worked by the wonderful Cyndee Rivera). Edmund's brought her home as a present for Jamie, who says, "I'm not much in the mood for fucking a fat puppet skank right now." Rosie looks insulted by that. Her foam face, wide as a sofa cushion, is remarkably expressive. Her nickname is Fat Violet, just as it is in the O'Neill script.

In another scene, trying to snap Mary out of her depression and keep her off the dope, James and Jamie put on a little show in which they dance in their underwear as they lip-sync Gene Autry's "Back in the Saddle Again." Protruding from their back ends are long green poles with silver streamers attached. At the end of the number, the poles shoot confetti. It's bizarre, all right, but one of Morphing's subtler comedy moments.

And so it goes for a little over two hours. You get Bridgette the maid (Rivera again) wearing a Hitler mustache, using a terrible Cockney accent and blowing a tuba as a stand-in for O'Neill's mournful foghorn. Jamie speaks of his time in 'Nam in the halting cadence of Christopher Walken. Consumptive Edmund, like his counterpart in the other play, coughs up blood, which Mary dismisses by saying "he's been eating a lot of Red Hots."

There is also a nice bit of Tuvan throat singing and some vintage home movies projected on furniture dust covers. Because why not?

Nobody dares to do theater in this town the way Matthew Posey is doing it at Ochre House. He's a gonzo auteur, creating shows on a small scale on a tiny stage in his own living room in a storefront loft by Fair Park. The budgets are small; the ideas are big. He produces only new work that he and his Balanced Almond acting company concoct. They rehearse till it's ready, with no schedule, no season, announcing each new show a few weeks before it opens. They're performed roughly, without polish. When an actor's wig falls off, he simply plops it back onto his head.

Morphing may sound like absurd vaudeville stuff, but real acting happens beyond the comedy. The performances by everyone in this cast deepen the impact of the play and its homage to its source. Long Day's Journey into Night is the drama great actors must do, up there with Hamlet and Lear. Posey, who's been acting for three decades now, knows this, of course, and, while skewering the tendency of actors to ham up parts like these, he gives his cast a few moments as affecting as some O'Neill wrote. Locklear, the young actor playing Mary, delivers a touching final speech about the importance of family and what motherhood has meant. Alone in a pool of light, Locklear's Mary sounds wounded but triumphant. And in true Posey fashion, he manages to give the end of the play real poignancy while having the character costumed in a wedding gown made of plastic bags, with a lighted bra underneath and pingpong balls for eyes.

More conventional entertainment can be found in Sylvia, the A.R. Gurney comedy now running at Pocket Sandwich Theatre. Cara L. Reid plays the title character, a flirtatious runaway mutt found in Central Park and brought home to live with businessman Greg (Dennis G.W. Millegen) and his wife Kate (Cindee Mayfield). Greg talks to Sylvia and she talks to him, but dog-hating Kate wants the pooch out of the apartment.

It's light comedy played in broad strokes in this production directed by Rodney Dobbs, who also designed the charming paint-by-numbers backdrop of Manhattan as seen from Central Park's Great Lawn.

Inventive comic touches come from actor Ben Bryant in a trio of roles. As Phyllis, Kate's snooty society pal, Bryant, wearing a pink Chanel-style suit, daintily crosses his ankles and declares "all men should be Republicans ... it's good for their prostates." Bryant also plays a dog park dude and a gender-neutral therapist who tries to help Kate and Greg resolve their conflicts over the pup. Watch how the actor creates a unique voice, physical silhouette and precise hand gestures for each character, all funny.

In a break from their wacky "popcorn plays," Pocket plays it safe with Sylvia. Gurney's written more than 40 plays and this one, along with the detestable Love Letters, shows up often on area stages. Contemporary Theatre of Dallas did a good production of it not long ago.

Audiences should know going in that this is not a play during which it is OK to talk back to the performers onstage. This is not the sort of hiss-and-boo melodrama Pocket usually puts on, so it is not appropriate to snarl and/or bark and/or whistle at the actors as they try to get through the evening. Patrons did these things at the performance reviewed. Perhaps the usher/waiters at this booze-serving dinner theater can arm themselves with rolled-up newspapers. If anyone dogs the actors during this show, they'll get a sharp whack on the snout.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner