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How Mao?

As a once-robust new play festival fades, Duke Theater Studies tries to take half of its first year "off the record"

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Another week, another silent bargain. Duke Drama's spring theater festival had filled the month of April in the 1990s with significant new works by students, faculty and impressive guests like Romulus Linney and Tina Landau. The 1999 edition featured 10 plays in five productions, including Dakota Powell's memorable Bliss Moon and José Rivera's References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, which took the Obie award for best new play the following year.

So arts journalists were shocked by a March 2000 Duke Drama program announcement that "we have decided that we will not issue a press release about the festival to off-campus media and prefer [sic] that the plays are not reviewed." A major new play festival was going into stealth mode--and being drastically reduced, to two productions in two weekends, one on a Duke mainstage. It wasn't in the papers.

Critics were also uninvited when the festival boasted a two-night playwriting workshop in 2001, and an outside, professionally cast workshop production of Little Women: The Musical, whose well-heeled producers had "requested no reviews of the show." Pre-show interviews with producers and cast members were, however, entirely acceptable.

Gotcha. And would you like fries to go with that?

Now another April brings another press blackout--a tradition by now, the rhetoric of which has hardened over two short years. Instead of "preferences" and "requests," this year e-mail has thrice informed me that the workshop production of Jody McAuliffe's stage adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel, Mao II, "cannot be reviewed"--but I can interview production staff before the run. The last e-mail came after I saw the show last Thursday night (the show closed April 21). "Sorry to be a pest about this," it said, before closing with, "I hope you found it thought-provoking!"

It was. But not as thought-provoking as a theater company dictating the critical coverage of its public performances to a free press. Nor was it as thought-provoking as a major theater program putting on one mainstage show in six months' time (when it regularly used to do three or more), inviting internationally renowned guest artists to star in it, and then placing three weeks' worth of half-page ads for the show in the local media, selling out the whole run in the process. When a company does all this and then tries to silence all critical public commentary on that work, that's very thought-provoking.

And here's the thought: Critic Frank Rich and others have repeatedly demonstrated that silence on alleged workshops is not a birthright, but a courtesy that can be revoked for cause. Here it has effectively hidden the dismantling of a major festival, and two productions that will never see Durham again--but ones whose backers hope might yet see New York City.

There's no shortage of finely crafted surfaces in this production's account of reclusive author Bill Gray's erratic downward spiral into a Middle Eastern hostage situation. Scott Lindroth's soundscape is ambient. On Jan Chambers' set, the ruined walls of a blasted building become projection surfaces for William Noland's potent, ghostly video montages.

But it's the quiet conversations I miss the most. DeLillo writes frequently for dyads: conversations between a husband and wife, a photographer and subject, or a writer and a reader. Most take place in closed rooms, in subdued tones. Even in Shaefer Theater, this production loses much of the paradoxical intimacy and isolation these conversations convey. Mabou Mines' co-artistic director Frederick Neumann is nearly as boisterous as Gray--and not the only character I found inflated in this production.

Part of this can be written off to differences in interpretation. But would Gray the recluse really have confided a childhood memory to an audience of strangers, as he does in a fourth-wall-breaking opening scene? And if aide de camp Scott had been as irritating a permanent grad student as Jim Iseman is directed here, wouldn't Gray have thrown him out years before?

In particular, the brief hostage scenes never reach their full dramatic potential, and scattershot jump cuts might challenge those who haven't read the book. Ditto for Clay Taliaferro's imaginative casting as a physical representation of Gray's unpublished book--his damaged nemesis, double, hostage and friend. As Scott's girlfriend, Karen, Dana Berger is disappointingly directed here as a one-note loony. And as George Haddad, Carl Martin comes off more as a lapsed Politburo member than a Lebanese political scientist.

But enough of this speculative production connects with the flyapart world of DeLillo's novel that further work is warranted to reinforce the intimacy and alienation there. At least, that's what I would have said if I'd been actually permitted to review Mao II. EndBlock

See the rest of this week's theater reviews in the A&E calendar. Contact Byron Woods at byron@indyweek.com.

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