Poetic License

The ever-malleable topics of love, artistic creation and the end of the world are tempered by various forms of poetic justice in Summerplay, The Changing Scene's annual festival of new works written and performed by artists with a Colorado connection. Although the trio of one-act plays varies considerably in quality and effectiveness, each dramatist tries to use uniquely theatrical pathways of expression instead of merely penning a conversational confession.

In Pavlina Emily Morris's Love and Bad Haiku, Cindy (Lija Maija) and Phil (Alee Garcia) sit down to dinner at a bar and grill. The twenty-something couple punctuate their casual conversation with bizarre, harshly lit episodes of haiku that stand apart from the rest of the dialogue. For instance, shortly after Phil asks her how she is, Cindy dons a pair of sunglasses, walks into an overhead spotlight and says to the audience, "There is a calm hush/The night is my enemy/And therefore I cry." A few minutes later, Phil tells Cindy that he's breaking up with her and demands that she put up a fight to save their relationship. When she declines, he stalks out in a huff ("I'm leaving you, Cindy, and you order soup and salad," he bellows). Touched by Cindy's ensuing heartbreak, a waiter, Paul (Ricardo Barrera), offers her an empathetic shoulder and recounts his own relationship woes. He was once gay, he tells her, but now is simply morose, partly because his last girlfriend (who, like Cindy, is an analyst) broke up with him because he couldn't tolerate her affinity for suede. Soon after that exchange, Paul crumbles to the floor, flops around and intones, "Swimming with the fish/We are both inside the bowl/I'll make them watch me."

The actors do what they can to make each character appealing while delivering the occasional Japanese-style poem consisting of three lines and seventeen syllables. And, apart from allowing the pace to lag, director Darren Schroader gives the thirty-minute piece an adequate staging. However, Morris's jarring structure proves more irritating than innovative. Rather than appeal to an audience's intuitive sensibilities by weaving together episodes that complement or build upon each other, she crafts a dramaturgical pile-up of non sequiturs. As a result, much of the potential for humor is lost as theatergoers spend more time navigating the play's twists and turns than appreciating the quirky signposts that Morris has haphazardly placed along the way.

Following a short pause to accommodate a changeover in props and furniture, the program continues with Randy Elliott's The Weeping Man, a half-hour one-act in which several characters confront death, fate and the apocalypse. One by one, two women (Kellie Rae Alexander and Tracy Clifton) run through the spare playing area accompanied by the sounds of distant warfare and, after briefly talking with the ubiquitous Weeping Man (Justin Thompson), promptly commit suicide. When a fire-and-brimstone evangelist (Casey Stockwell) follows in the women's footsteps and puts a gun to his head, though, Mr. Weepy intervenes. A couple of minutes later, an angel (Nicole Brandner) enters from the audience area and, Book of Life in hand, announces, "I'm on a mission from God." After an army general (John Hookey) demands everyone's name and serial number, the voice of God (Ed Halloran) opines about the goings-on by saying, "If it isn't Stalin, it's some dickhead in Yugoslavia." Mr. Weepy, who is apparently the dramatist's stand-in for Christ, reflects on God's remarks and solemnly declares, "Don't let the dickheads win, sir."

Guided by director David McClinton's steadying hand, the performers invest the play with an urgency that seems appropriate to people suddenly faced with their own--and all of humanity's--mortality. And when one character observes, "Think of it, the end of the world" and another answers that "only a select few can say they've seen it," it seems as though we will finally be admitted to the secret chamber of the playwright's vision--instead of being kept waiting in his humdrum anteroom. Unfortunately, that hope dims with the slow extinguishing of the stage lights following Mr. Weepy's potty-mouthed request.

But there's plenty of intrigue to be had, as well as a measure or two of soulful satisfaction, after intermission. A thirty-minute Socratic dialogue of sorts, Stephen J. Cribari's Sonata for Solo Cello explores a renowned cellist's platonic love affair with his unseen, ivory-tickling neighbor. As the play begins, we're introduced to George Mansole (Terrence Shaw), a retired musician who whiles away his hours in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. He's joined by his biographer, Edward Pinner (Ken Witt), a journalist who gleans pertinent facts about his subject from the anecdotes he tells while making pithy observations about paintings. For instance, Mansole says that selfishness is an essential part of a creative person's behavior, noting that, much like a Cezanne painting, an artist's work becomes clearer if the viewer doesn't stand too close. A moment later, Mansole delves deeper into his relationship with the mysterious Miss Gratier, the aforementioned neighbor who faithfully answered his strains by providing from memory (and through the wall that forever separated them) the appropriate piano accompaniment to each of his chosen pieces.

Morris, in this case directing, provides her own form of counterpoint by using recorded musical selections and the transitory presence of a few museum visitors to underscore Mansole's many monologues. The effect resembles that of a respectful conductor marshaling an orchestra's disparate forces to lend texture and subtlety to the sometimes rudimentary melody. When combined with Shaw's steady portrayal, Morris and company effectively embellish the lyric undercurrents in Cribari's charming play. As Mansole says of another painting near play's end, "There is perspective, not deception." It's a worthy goal that the artists in Summerplay occasionally achieve.

Summerplay '99, through August 8 at the Changing Scene, 1527 1/2 Champa Street, 303-893-5775.

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Jim Lillie

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