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Iconography at dusk

Seeing the world with Fred Cuny



How the hell're they ever gonna get that on stage? It's the first thing I said after throwing Scott Anderson's bombastically-titled The Man Who Tried to Save the World across the sofa, the moment I finished reading it.

Its subject, Fred Cuny, was a tall Texan who literally rewrote the book on international disaster relief in the 1980s. The record reflects he did so after rewriting his own checkered biography, editing out a few things like a busted marriage, a truly uninspired showing at Texas A&M, and a washout in the Marine Corps along the way.

Still, when this rough-hewn, self-made man finally found the place he truly fit--or fit as well as he was ever going to in contemporary society--he saved tens of thousands of lives in the process. Cuny was convinced that disasters present opportunities--and proceeded to demonstrate he could recognize and capitalize on them when they did. He revolutionized his field in the process.

But he did so at a price. His innovations rocked the status quo in what some would call the disaster relief industry, which reacted by relegating bit parts and wholesale obscurity to him in his early years. His unwillingness to compromise on principle--that, and possibly his shaded resume--meant Cuny would always serve outside the corridors of power, but never in power himself.

Ultimately, the self-made man made himself into an ironic hybrid: the hero-outcast, a figure who probably needed increasing doses of mystery to obscure those parts of him that were not sufficiently larger than life.

If so, it's a crushing irony that that cultivated mystery may well have been the deciding factor which cost him his life. Cuny vanished on his second trip to Chechnya in 1995. Before his disappearance he called it "the scariest place I've ever been." This, from a man who'd witnessed, firsthand, world-class disasters in Bosnia, Nicaragua, Kurdistan and Rwanda.

It's easy to see what attracted Burning Coal artistic director Jerry Davis and Floraine Kay to the story. What may not have been as evident were the equally excellent reasons to exercise caution on their approach.

Since Cuny's tale spans the globe in our time--not once, but repeatedly, by necessity, in a never-ending cascade of scene changes--a stage adaptation runs the risk of devolving into travelogue by just keeping up with him. A production always preoccupied with going everywhere may never settle long enough to adequately deal with the consequences of staying anywhere--including inside the subject's head.

That risk is particularly heightened here since Anderson only has the posthumous record--and a decidedly small handful of relatives and confidants to draw on when he tells his tale. Even with those, a frustrating element of distance--rarely measured in increments less than a thousand kilometers--seemingly factors into every human relationship our self-styled mystery man cultivated. The rest of Cuny's original cast was a far-flung collection of operatives, bureaucrats and "friends" whose self-interests rival the associates of Joel Cairo.

Needless to say, the Barbara Walters treatment isn't going to work on this one, folks. Various relatives may crack open, at least to varying degrees, as the son does on a drunken fishing trip with Anderson, but one thing's certain: The old man was never going to, and he sure ain't doing it now.

If Anderson's awkward, amateur psychologizing never successfully punctured Cuny's exoskeleton of myth and tall tale, what chances did this adaptation ever have? The book and this production valiantly try, from first to very last, to construct a full, robust, coherent character from the surviving record of their central subject. Frankly, both fail in the attempt. Instead of character, we get icon.

When such distance is forced into a stage equation, look for similar distance between the production and the audience. And since that distance largely denies character depth, guest director Matthew Earnest goes for velocity instead. Given the available options, it's hard to blame him.

Earnest deftly copies the theatrical merry-go-round his mentor Adrian Hall constructed in Kennedy Theatre last fall for All the King's Men I & II. The blur of speed and color distracts us for a while, but whenever this ride slows, the thinness of its almost uniformly underdeveloped characters becomes apparent. We get seconds with them; then the ride cranks up again. Since it never really stops, the audience never truly gets to board it.

Here's a lead I never thought I'd have to write: Think we've seen total warfare yet?

Caryl Churchill disagrees.

The controversial British playwright thinks we've only scratched a very fragile surface. The degree to which we have--and what lies more or less immediately ahead--forms the dark interior of

Far Away , which opens this week at Manbites Dog Theater.

If we're very lucky, this co-production with the Pennsylvanian theater company Our Shoes Are Red will only be one of the most harrowing works of the season.

If we are not, it may prove one of the most prophetic ones as well.

A conflict is kept at the margins of the stage in a first act which set designer Brian Slocum describes as "a crash between Alfred Hitchcock and Norman Rockwell." By the start of act three, it has blossomed into full-fledged civil war.

Actually, that's probably an optimistic description--optimistic in the extreme. Arguably, we are witnessing a civilization-ending event, as war shatters whatever it is that holds a culture together into ever-shifting--and ever-shrinking--demographic units. The computer programmers against the musicians. The five year olds, out for their own.

In short, forget nations, states and cities. Everything is going back to tribes. Trust extends no further than that. Then it doesn't extend that far.

And all of this occurs before something even worse develops.

"I've got to tell you, this is quite a little dark play to be working on in these times," director Devon Allen admits over coffee one sunny morning last week. She describes a process in which her cast depressurizes after rehearsals, doing fun or gentle things "to find some light, some balance."

Allen finds herself directing a play about war in a world that appears, at least to some degree, to be following suit.

"I have great hopes for human beings, or I wouldn't be an artist," she says. "I think it's an act of hope to create."

"But I think we're really losing our bearings now," she continues. "I don't know how else to say it. And I think the play is also about the escalation of losing one's way, somehow."

Allen pauses as she looks into the distance.

"There is a point where you can't go back, you know," she murmurs. "In relationships, when you say too much and you just can't take it all back? It's the same with the world, I think. I think it can get too far gone."

Another pause.

"I'm not saying we're there. But I think Caryl thinks we're headed there."

I can't disclose much more of Churchill's plot without giving away some crucial points inside. But I can say Far Away reminds me of the darker work of T.S. Eliot. I can also say that for a world so seemingly intent on provoking all things--mankind, the gods and nature--simultaneously, Far Away isn't nearly far enough away to comfort me.

We close with a timely consumer's advisory about the touring version of

Fame: The Musical , which Broadway Series South brings to BTI Center this week. Theatergoers who don't read the fine print in advance on this production (or, ahem, this column) will likely assume it follows the recent spate of slavishly faithful movie-musical adaptations like The Producers, Hairspray, Saturday Night Fever and Thoroughly Modern Millie and gear up for a trip down musical memory lane.

Boy, are they in for a surprise. Though local advertising has hardly publicized the fact, Fame: The Musical takes place several years after the events in the famous 1980 Alan Parker film--and has ditched the entirety of Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford's memorable soundtrack (except for the title track) in the process.

This stage version drafted Steve Margoshes (The Who's Tommy) and Jacques Levy (Oh, Calcutta?) to fill the breach instead. Warmly received on the London stage, this Fame after Fame was panned by the New York Times when it bowed off-Broadway in November 2003. Even so, they must be doing something right: six months later, the show's still running on 42nd Street.

Still, anyone needing to relive "I Sing the Body Electric," "Hot Lunch Jam," Irene Cara's "Out Here on My Own"--or nearly any other song from the film this show is named for--is advised to spend $15 on the movie's DVD, not the $57.50 for top tix to this show. EndBlock

Beau Jest, Second Avenue South Theater Company, NRACT, Friday-Sunday, through June 13, $15-$10, 233-0752; Fame: The Musical, Broadway Series South, BTI Center, Tuesday-Sunday, June 6, $57.50-$17.50, 834-4000; The Rebelles Burlesque: Through Sick and Sin, Carrboro ArtsCenter, Saturday, June 5, $20-$18, 929-ARTS.

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