Conundrum State Productions, which claims to stage "theater for the discriminating audience member, as performed by the seriously unwell," is presenting three short plays under the umbrella title Mortal Fools at the LIDA Project Theater. Each play contains something worthwhile -- a fragment of insight, a snippet of surprise, a moment or two of hilarity -- and though none of the plays is entirely satisfactory by itself -- together they make for an entertaining evening.
On the night I attended, there were few audience members. More bodies would have helped -- more people breathing and laughing in the dusky space. The performance area is cavernous; it drinks up sound and muffles voices. Nonetheless, the five actors who make up Conundrum State manage to bring it to life.
The first play of the evening is Christopher Durang's For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls. A parody of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, it's a one-joke story, lacking the caustic wit of some of Durang's other works. Williams's wistful, otherworldly heroine, Laura Wingfield, has been transformed into Lawrence Wingvalley, who moons over his collection of swizzle sticks and, when not so engaged, ponders with equal intensity his own mildly disgusting physical ailments. His mother, Amanda, is modeled on the wilting Southern belle of Menagerie, though, unlike that other Amanda, she often lets her irritation with her son pierce through her thickly dreamy veneer. Williams's Gentleman Caller changes sex, though not sexual preference, to become Durang's deaf lesbian Ginny, who tries to buck Lawrence up and make a man of him. Durang can't help being funny even when he's not in top form. Carol J. Elliott is entirely convincing as an aging belle, and Ron Mediatore is a wonderfully sulky Lawrence, so there are plenty of laughs. But eventually -- as Ginny (Susan Lyles) yells at everyone on stage, Lawrence fusses over his swizzle sticks, Heston Gray, as brother Tom, plots his escape and Amanda complains -- the joke begins to wear thin.
Anna Marie Barlow's Ferryboat, a mood piece set on a ferry on a river outside New Orleans, provides a quiet interlude between the rollicking absurdity of the other two plays. Ferryboat actually captures some of Tennessee Williams's elegaic quality -- though it lacks both his damped-down passion and his electrifying poetry. A drifter encounters a seventeen-year-old girl whose mother has recently died and who's traveling on her own. At first he seems sympathetic and concerned, even fatherly; the two talk about loneliness and belonging. Then, as the drifter's examining the pendant around the girl's neck, there's a moment of fear: We're unsure of his intentions, and his hands are altogether too close to her throat. But when he actually does proposition her and she refuses him, he turns out not to be a Williams-style villain after all. He just shrugs and loses all interest in her. Which, in its own way, is almost creepier than rage or violence.
Ferryboat is the least lively of the three plays. The situation it depicts is static, for the most part: The actors' voices are low, the lighting dim. Sometimes my attention drifted. Yet this was the piece that provided an unexpected emotional jolt: As the girl stood alone on the boat's deck in the gathering darkness of the ending, I found myself filled with sadness, foreboding about what might await her, and an acute sense of the loneliness at the heart of the human condition. Heston Gray's enigmatic, understated performance as Biff is very effective. Callie Bittner, who plays Amite, is still very young, and doesn't yet have the subtlety and quicksilver quality the role demands.
The evening ends with another comedy, Don Nigro's vigorously absurd Bible, which features a righteous Victorian mother reading the Holy Book to her children while her husband is away burning unholy ones. We're hoping for a thumping attack on Puritanism, and though the play does partially deliver, it also follows its own insane logic. The mother discovers that the Bible is, in fact, full of procreation and begetting, and her children -- Harry in his short pants, and angelic little Annabelle -- coax her into reading further and further, until finally (hello, again, Tennessee) they begin to uncover the lasciviousness at the heart of religious and social repression.
Carol J. Elliott is just as good in Bible as she was as Amanda, spilling over with every ridiculous feeling the play requires of her. In addition, her comic timing is exquisite. Ron Mediatore, whose performance as Lawrence Wingvalley supplied much of the glue that held Southern Belle together, comes up with a rather similar characterization here. Susan Lyles is sure-footed as the golden-curled Annabelle, whose innocent countenance masks who knows what profane impulses.
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