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Making slippy sloppy

Technical problems plague two new productions


This is why, on some level, I actually dread weeks like the one that inspired my last column, when brilliance seemed to shine from every stage. Sooner or later, there's got to be a backlash: Nature enforces few laws more ruthlessly than the law of averages. Gleanings from the week after two season standouts: Two theater productions, and two persuasive demonstrations that elements off-stage can either enhance--or fundamentally derail--what's happening on it.

As a public service, we now remove one more seductive scenario from the Big Board of Theatrical Temptations. Is anyone out there still toying with the idea of putting banks of chairs around a loading dock and charging admission to watch Teamsters pull the second shift? No need. Flying Machine Theatre Company probed the entertainment value of its analogue at a number of points during the opening night of its season starter, Red Herring .

Playwright Michael Hollinger's relatively blunt, pun-riddled homage to pulp fiction during the 1950s lacks the sophistication of a Dark Rapture. It noticeably loses buoyancy in convoluted middle passages involving a mute Russian fisherman before an entirely implausible ending--a particularly disappointing situation, since the cast assembled here is clearly more than good for a few laughs.

Whitney Boreiko and Eric Morales are delectable as lovebirds Lynn and James, the sweet (if rather ditzy) daughter of Sen. Joe McCarthy, and her highly-placed atomic scientist beau--who also happens to be passing H-bomb plans over to the Commies, strictly in the interest of world peace.

While this gratifyingly earnest--and naîve--pair play "Can This Marriage Be Saved," talented newcomer Stephanie Maysonave and Torrey Lawrence have to make do with the noticeably thinner theatrical material of star-crossed gumshoes Maggie and Frank. She's a Boston police detective working on a waterfront murder, while he's FBI, sniffing out an espionage case at the height of the Red Menace. Their underscripted romance gets problematic as their cases begin to converge.

Ably supporting this talented quartet: a brassy Lisa Cates; a memorable Mark Zumbach as Andrei, the courtly Russian longshoreman; and wise-guy Todd Igoe, in full Drew Carey mode here in roles including a police photographer unusually preoccupied with aesthetics and a coroner who really enjoys his work.

But their labors combined still couldn't rescue this show from the collection of miscues and technical gaffes that plagued their opening night performance. We watched with growing dismay as a clearly under-rehearsed stage crew grappled with ungainly wooden crates, lugging them from side to side before unceremoniously dropping them in the noisiest manner possible. The stagehands were also forced to wrestle with Curtis Jones' dysfunctional set, whose too-specific visual design kept bedroom and storefront scenes inappropriately anchored on the charred planks of a harbor dock.

Confusion seemed the watchword backstage as well. We only know this since the curtain at the back of the Common Ground Theatre stage was repeatedly lifted all the way back during increasingly disorganized scene changes, revealing props and platforms--and actors prepping for their next scene, trying their best to ignore the sudden, unwelcome reappearance of the audience.

Transitions grew longer than the scenes they connected. During them, production personnel could be clearly heard, hissing directions at one another, as sound cues either misfired or were abruptly squelched.

Though the acting was quite competent, with a fair-to-middling script, what we witnessed was a technical fiasco, an embarrassing failure of design and execution, and the sloppiest production we've seen in recent memory.

Regrettably, a similar consumer's advisory follows Happy Days. The pitch-black Samuel Beckett "comedy" ostensibly heralds a new company--even though this first production by director Jay O'Berski's Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern finds only usual suspects Marcia Edmundson and Tom Marriott on stage. Just by the names alone, those already familiar with regional theater would likely conclude that nothing goes amiss on stage in this production. They would be right.

This ghastly tale, which makes entirely literal the metaphor of reduced circumstances among the aged, is basically a one-woman show for Edmundson, one of the region's most valued actors. Her Winnie is a dowager of a certain age who, despite all of her stiff-upper-lipmanship, is slowly being swallowed up by the earth around her. Already hip-deep in designer David Berberian's dead brown grassy knoll of a set, this matron in pink dress and pearls uses the constant yammer of small talk to keep loneliness at bay, maintain failing contact with a taciturn Willie and fill an endless progression of absolutely empty hours.

It's curious in this production how quickly Winnie's stationary filibuster comes to mimic the similarly motionless talking heads of cable and network television. One can far too easily imagine finding her while flipping through channels between Ellen and Oprah--or maybe, given her energetic style, sandwiched in between the morning network news. Perhaps briefly, perhaps not, the lack of content in one place sensitizes us to the lack of content in the other. What would fill all those daytime hours--and all those people's lives--if it weren't for talk? What ocean is constantly held back by such a fragile dam of words?

Edmundson brings true drama to Winnie's increasing desperation in the second act, apparently abandoned by her companion, unable to reach the pathetic little props that amuse and distract her through act one. She--and by extension, all of us--gradually loses all capacity to do anything but tell ourselves stories. Or so to speak in the old style.

Unfortunately, the considerable achievements of this production were also thwarted by issues off-stage. Little Green Pig's inaugural production also inaugurates the space at Smith Warehouse, a proposed new venue in the renovated red brick warehouses paralleling the train tracks on Buchanan Boulevard just off Duke's East Campus at West Main Street.

Actually, make that "partially renovated," since the authenticity of old wooden beams and sandblasted brick in the upstairs loft area remains at this point completely uncompromised by that 20th-century invention, air conditioning.

The combination of few windows, theatrical lights, several hundred patrons--and insulating brick--resulted in what we dubbed bikram Beckett early in the evening. Longtime readers who remember our admonitions about rotisserie theater--particularly when applied to comedy--from last season at Ringside and other venues should be advised: They apply here as well.

Of course, Beckett may well have wanted his audiences to suffer, at least a bit, through his crafted purgatorios. But this much? Whatever the case, a number of audience members declined to continue between opening and closing acts, after retreating to the comforts of ironically modern--and considerably cooler--hallways and office spaces during intermission.

Even worse? This hellish venue awaited patrons the night we were there only after a forced walk down a dark, deserted parking lot, when rent-a-cops prevented theater patrons from entering the building complex with their cars.

Though Duke Performances clearly fancies this a new alternative performance venue, audiences would do well to seek other alternatives until they get their act together. For myself, I have absolutely no intention of seeing another performance at this location until they do.

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