Solid as a rock

Pegasus Theatre ought to be aware that one of the most successful Dallas Theater Center shows of this current season was, for all practical purposes, a Pegasus production. Of course, departed director Jonathan Moscone brought in out-of-town actors and designers as well as professional multimedia folks to soup up the '40s film Gothic ambience of The Mystery of Irma Vep, complete with a Pegasus hallmark -- opening credits rolling across a movie screen to the accompaniment of slashing, swelling string sections. It was almost as though a Bass or Albritton benefactor had given Pegasus founder Kurt Kleinmann a revivifying infusion of big cash, and in turn amped up the enthusiasm of the two costume-changing leads. But a juicier, more flavorful paycheck to the actors didn't preclude the same pitfalls involved in projecting winks and nods expanded to billboard-size. As I noted in a review of that show, the big-budget Mystery of Irma Vep, for all the talent on display there, ceased being funny or even entertaining and just became reassuring, gently cooing to us with the familiarity of its comic tropes.

That camp has become a gigantic, cherry-flavored pacifier for the moneyed masses surely rattles the caskets of Charles Ludlam and his forebears in theatrical decadence like Wilde and Beardsley. Much as they celebrated art for art's sake and claimed to reject topical political satire that preached for our common betterment, one could argue they were moralists who exposed superficiality by suggesting that, when you really think about it, life ain't a whole lot less extravagantly artificial than art. Yet somewhere inside the wholesale absorption of the gay male sensibility into the American mainstream, the route between the two got reversed; camp had come to possess not writer and actor but audience. Once ticketbuyers seized the reins with their own well-practiced camp sensibilities, the performers had to spend altogether too much time acknowledging their presence, congratulating them for the sophistication with which they recognized these send-ups of time, place, and style. When it became an exercise in how smart and cynical an audience could be about human folly and naivete, the actors stopped tweaking anything or anybody, and began to simply sashay their way through pointless pageants.

This is what makes some of Pegasus Theatre's recent forays so interesting: They have specialized in camp that returns a degree of guilelessness to the proceedings. For the most part, their latest, a generous reworking of Jules Verne's novel Journey to the Center of the Earth by director-writer Gerald Fitzgerald, continues the quietly ambitious project of redrawing the division between actor and audience. Fitzgerald and director Steven-Shayle Rhodes have created a largely irony-free world where good old Western reason (in the form of good old, alabaster-white Englishmen) penetrates the bowels of the rocky unknown and discovers a race of Amazonian women who are at once barbaric and evolved, cannibalistic and caring. Any lesson you want to take away about that tiresome war between the sexes is here, but more impressively, there is a sui generis display of both the adventurous men and the powerful women and the absurdity of the battle in which they are locked. In other words, the show -- although explicitly billed as a comedy -- is precisely as funny or as serious as you want to make it. I had a good time approaching it from both directions.

Jules Verne, who died in 1905, is often praised not just for predicting the invention of the television and the jet plane and the submarine, but for imagining the ways in which worldwide bureaucracies would develop around those innovations. In this sense, his "works of the imagination" are really warnings about how the same old conflicts would take place in vastly more technological arenas. And so investigative scientist Sir Edmond Mallory (A. Raymond Banda), his bespectacled faithful nephew Alec (Daniel McDaniel), and rugged, class-baiting mercenary Rick Reese (Chip Wood) really aren't entering a brave new world as they face off against tyrannical Queen Lysippea (Coy Covington), her High Priestess Pitana (Lisa Ann Haram, a dead ringer for a young Geraldine Page), and their army of women and blood beast warriors. Thanks to director Rhodes, it's a world full of well-anchored details in the performances -- the professorial cadence to the line readings by Banda; the way a mute Leslie Patrick as Tanja, the gentle and sexy Amazon, stalks the strange new men with wide-legged wariness; the hilarious effete English accent that Chip Wood as American Rick Reese adopts when mocking the "unmanly" scientific society in which Sir Mallory toils. Covington, who has (shock of shocks!) lately been wearing more men's clothes than women's in North Texas productions, returns to fulminate in tiara and high heels with smart comic timing rather than camp flabbiness as Queen Lysippea.

Theater neophytes who love old sci-fi needn't make that much of a leap of patience with this adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Saturday morning serials were filmed with single-camera setups on soundstages, and the operative word for anyone who developed a taste for these shorts' lengthy exposition punctuated with clumsy interruptions of badly choreographed action is stage. These traits seem to be many nonplaygoers' worst nightmare of what a live drama or thriller is, yet they are redeemed by their preservation on film stock. Once again, it's that weird way black and white celluloid nostalgia inoculates people against boredom toward the most banal and unkempt of material. I've come to appreciate the reason for this -- the sci-fi sagas of mid-20th century film are forever trapped in their own time, unable to claw their way through the screen and acknowledge how much craftier and more jaded we've become over the following decades. That seems to be the formula that director Steven-Shayle Rhodes, playwright Gerald Fitzgerald, and the hardy cast of Journey to the Center of the Earth are following -- trying to keep the material truer to its own innocence and obliviousness, not so interested in counting the notches on our cultural bedpost, so to speak.

This may be the natural progression for this art form, a return to spotlighting the shiny gold bricks of good intention on the road that leads straight down under. And so Journey to the Center of the Earth becomes an inadvertently appropriate title, a return to the core of a world of surfaces that's exciting for its fragility, the lunacy that at any moment might begin to unravel the whole fabric. The process of regrowing our cherry may be, on one level, a grotesque and even dangerous endeavor -- the fleshy barrier that returns is likely to cover our eyes as much as protect our, I mean virtue. But I seriously doubt we're going to return any time soon to the mass delusion that official America is Anglo, male, heterosexual, Christian, and morally sound. The creepy thrill of entering a world where such assumptions reign in all their satiny horror makes for a helluva lot more engrossing stage performances than sitting around crowing about other people's hypocrisies one more time.

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Jimmy Fowler

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