Slouching toward the millennium

The road has risen up to meet Dallas' Kitchen Dog Theater, proving that hard work and artistic talent, even of an alternative and sometimes enigmatic nature, can still be rewarded.

The company's good fortune this season began with a $5,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. (If that doesn't sound like much, you're obviously unaware of the sad state of arts funding in general and the state of affairs at the NEA in particular.) Kitchen Dog was awarded the grant as a first-time applicant to the beleaguered agency, which is a rare feat indeed.

Kitchen Dog also has a new home at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, a fluorescent cobalt-blue building hidden behind a Texaco Station and the adjacent One Stop near the McKinney trolley garage. The just opened, wow-now MAC space houses a gallery and the obligatory book store cum coffee shop as well as a comfortable 90-seat theater.

Recognition from the NEA and a cozy new venue translate into some security for the theater company when most alternative theaters are used to existing like vagabonds. Many would respond to the good fortune with a safe season opener, a crowd pleaser that says thank you and please, may I have some more at the same time.

But that's not Kitchen Dog's style. (The group of former SMU graduate students took their name from the kitchen dog in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, because they "seek to question the cycle of ignorance and injustice" by presenting challenging work.) So for their season debut they picked Zastrozzi--a dark, difficult, uneven work that presents a huge physical challenge to the actors.

According to a press release, the cast trained four hours a day, five days a week, beginning last June. Once again, the result is a lot to chew on, but it's also a production well worth experiencing.

Kitchen Dog's Zastrozzi, which has its final run this weekend at the MAC, is a comic, over-the-top melodrama that explores the widening vortex of societal decay and dissolution. The play is a battleground for good versus evil, truth versus perception, art versus life.

Here the struggles are framed by the demented master criminal and antihero, Zastrozzi (played to the hilt by Dan Day), a hallucinating visionary named Verezzi (Ren Moreno), and his guardian Victor (Joe Nemmers). Zastrozzi is a criminal who has plagued all of Europe but is now focused on one individual, Verezzi, who represents the dangers and vagaries of goodness, but has a dark past for which Zastrozzi also seeks revenge.

Several subplots emerge as Zastrozzi chases the harmless, simple Verezzi, and the characters sometimes offer them up like abridged synopses. It's not always easy to follow exactly why things are happening. Verezzi helped kill Zastrozzi's mother, for example, but we get no clear motive nor do we understand why he has blocked it out and become a religious zealot with no memory of his horrible crime--not unlike some kind of original sin. And in a significant shift, Zastrozzi decides that since there is no God, all criminals must be answerable and accountable to him, including, ultimately, himself.

Much of the goings-on are as clear as those of a soap opera--they just are, and the audience is challenged to go with the flow as if a favorite soap villain suddenly developed a multiple personality disorder after feigning amnesia.

Canadian playwright George F. Walker wrote the play in the 1970s during his close association with the Factory Theatre Lab. He set the play in turn-of-the century Europe, but Kitchen Dog places the time near today, in the shadow of the millennium. For director Bill Lengfelder, the year 2,000 presents the right kind of moral eclipse for the dark forces of Zastrozzi. Lengfelder, the newest member of Kitchen Dog (you may recall his striking entree in last season's American Buffalo), sustains a wild and perversely comic tone through most of the play. His talents as a mime, fight choreographer, and martial arts student--and his master's degree in psychology--are all well utilized here.

Lengfelder is in control as director of this fierce, funny material, but he does make some strange choices. While the piece is supposed to be set in the here and now, for instance, the costumes confuse the time element while bordering on the bizarre. Zastrozzi's lover and partner in crime Matilda (played by a miscast Stacie Wilson), wears a black unitard and geometrical haircut that make her look more like a Susan Powter devotee. Her sudden peppy gymnastics in the fight scenes only make her seem more like an aerobic guru from an infomercial rather than an evil seductress.

Henchman Bernardo, played aptly by Drew Sutherland, looks like a bouncer for an S&M nightclub with a medieval theme, while Victor, Zastrozzi's nemesis, appears to be a Madison Avenue advertising executive with a penchant for boxy suits and shiny loafers. The Big Z himself wears torn jeans and a trench coat that make him look like a man waiting to expose himself in a public park.

And then there's the Spartan set, which is so bare it resembles a jungle gym in the playground instead of the foreboding, decrepit prison it is often supposed to reflect.

Yet even with all these myriad elements and a sinewy text, Zastrozzi still comes together like fireworks in the sky, or some kind of spontaneous combustion in a glass tube. It succeeds despite (or because of?) a lot of mixed messages and monologues that could double as text for Calvin Klein's Obsession ads.

For me, Zastrozzi is an action-packed, provocative adult comic book come alive. In fact, Walker should recreate it as a comic series, with drawings by Art Spiegelman, the creator of Maus.

Ultimately, the play succeeds not only because of Lengfelder's direction but because of some terrific performances. Rene Moreno, last seen in Dallas Theater Center's The Cherry Orchard, is quite inspired as the mad innocent with a dark past, and his relationship with Victor is affecting. Kitchen Dog co-founders Day and Nemmers provide their usual contrast, this time as good and evil. They also show off some fine pectorals and flashy fencing during the sword fights. And Annelise Christ provides relief as Julia, a vapid virgin ensnared in Zastrozzi's web much like a woman tied to the train tracks as the steam engine approaches.

Zastrozzi is in the end more fun than truly thought-provoking. That's because its battles are so hyperbolic it almost qualifies as camp.

It also takes a while to ease into the play's dark style and humor, but be patient. Soon enough you will join in the strangely affable nightmare without looking back.

Zastrozzi runs through November 26 at the MAC, 3120 McKinney Avenue. For more information, call 520-

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Nora Fitzgerald