A Titanic Feat

Hollywood's neatly packaged lies have been both bane and beacon to playwright Jeffrey Hatcher. Even though Hatcher's farce about Thirties Tinseltown types, One Foot on the Floor, was given a rousing world-premiere production last year by the Denver Center Theatre Company, the play's satiric commentary nonetheless failed to resonate with audience members more willing to believe that the artifice of the movies is somehow more real than life itself.

Which is, ironically enough, a subject that Hatcher examined a few years earlier in Scotland Road, a drama about one man's obsession with the sinking of the Titanic that is currently receiving its local premiere at the LIDA Project Experimental Theatre in a production staged by Sinking Ship Presents. Hatcher's 1992 play now appears to have been a work of prescient genius in light of the hoopla surrounding James Cameron's recent blockbuster film. And under the assured direction of Terry Dodd, the 75-minute drama, about the shifting boundary that separates creativity from madness, proves to be an ultimately satisfying, if initially stultifying, evening.

As the play begins, we learn from a manic, tabloid-reading gentleman, John (Phil Luna), that the crew of a modern-day Norwegian fishing boat has plucked a young woman clad in Victorian-era clothing, Winifred (Catherine DiBella), from an iceberg floating somewhere in the North Atlantic. When questioned by the fisherman about her identity, Winifred has reportedly uttered only, "Titanic." With the assistance of Dr. Halbrech (Jan Cleveland), Titanic fanatic John (the great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, a wealthy New York financier who in reality went down with the ship) arranges to transport the stonily silent Winifred to an abandoned gas station located in Maine, where he subsequently interrogates her. However, Winifred refuses to answer any of John's questions and, with time running out (it's not entirely clear why the doctor permits John to question Winifred for only six days), John and Dr. Halbrech suddenly discover that the last known Titanic survivor, Miss Kittle (Patty Mintz Figel), conveniently resides a mere twenty miles from their makeshift psychiatric ward. Naturally, the two prevail upon Kittle to pump Winifred for obscure details about the Titanic's voyage (such as the nickname for the ship's central passageway that serves as the play's title). In a moment that echoes the famous line "Juicy Fruit" from the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Winifred surprisingly decides to tell all to the nonagenarian, setting in motion a series of entertaining identity crises.

In addition to heightening the production's elements of suspense, director Dodd's Hitchcock-like approach, punctuated by stark lighting and eerie sound effects, artfully enhances the otherworldly aspects of Hatcher's episodic script. The veteran director effectively confines his actors to a tiny, claustrophobic area of the stage that they enter by walking, as if in a trance, through a complex maze of translucent white sheets that serve as a backdrop to the action (a spare but evocative set design by Charles D. Packard). The labyrinth is also used as the sole entrance to the theater for audience members who, "boarding passes" in hand, grope their way through the half-light to their seats, bringing to mind a group of sleepy Titanic passengers who've mysteriously been awakened from the dead to witness what John refers to as "a perversion of sacred memory."

Led by DiBella's charming heroine and Figel's delightful matron, the performers enforce rapt attention from audience members intrigued by Hatcher's oddly beautiful netherworld. But because none of the characters are who they appear to be at first glance, the opening 25 minutes of Dodd's production are difficult to follow, especially because the actors' portrayals are sketchy from the get-go. For instance, even though we're willing to assume that John is wealthy and powerful enough to kidnap a perfect stranger with the cooperation of a doctor (not to mention the State Department), Luna's ambiguous portrait of the show's main character lacks weight and precision early on. To make matters worse, playwright Hatcher conceals the nature of John's particular interest in Winifred's story until halfway through the drama. As a result, the first half of the production becomes less a polemic about tabloid truths and everyday lies than a bizarre, nightmarish episode of What's My Line?

Still, Dodd and company manage to orchestrate the production's disparate elements into a tumultuous, symphonic whole by play's end. And when Luna's character finally faces his true nature (in what amounts to the production's most moving scene), the ensemble succeeds in eliciting the lion's share of Hatcher's intriguing themes about illusion and reality. Best of all, their triumph occurs in a substantially shorter amount of time and on an infinitely smaller scale than could ever be accommodated by Cameron's Hollywood hype machine.

Scotland Road, presented by Sinking Ship Presents through August 8 at the LIDA Project Experimental Theatre, 80 South Cherokee Street, 282-0466.

 
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