Where's a Censor When You Need One?

The group of Denver natives and Southern Methodist University graduates that formed HorseChart Theatre Company a few seasons back made it their mission to produce plays that "do not make a spectacle of the obvious." While past productions have tested edgy boundaries and occasionally transported theatergoers to seldom-seen territory, the company's latest effort strays so far from the realm of common sense that audience members are likely to feel marooned in the land of the lost.

While Ariel Dorfman's Reader reportedly drew capacity crowds during its world-premiere run at the 1995 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the same could be said for many of that mammoth event's multitude of offerings. Many of those, like the Chilean expatriate's drama, are murky, bizarre and vaguely alarmist works in which intense characters murmur, ponder and menace their way through episodes of sex, censorship and tyranny.

Reader, which is receiving its American premiere at the Phoenix Theatre, is set in a reactionary, futuristic dictatorship that, according to the program, is "everywhere." The fragmented, sometimes-nonsensical story concerns a government official, Don Alfonso Morales, whose duty is to "greenlight" only those media projects that toe the party line. In the course of obeying his directive, the officious lout comes across a manuscript that's eerily reminiscent of his own past -- so much so, in fact, that he becomes convinced that the supposedly fictional tome is pure, though definitely adulterated, biography. As the tale continues, we're introduced to the book's impoverished writer, his harried wife, an oily uber-director and several other characters whose lives intersect with Alfonso's in bizarre ways.

But no matter how clever Dorfman's premise is, it's difficult to care about any of the simultaneously pained and numbed beings who drift through the playwright's socio-literary-political -- and just plain wacky -- time warp. Some characters stand up well enough on their own, but that's due more to the actors' efforts than Dorfman's storytelling abilities, which range from pitiable to pretentious within the short space of three or four lines. Just when the dramatist appears on the road to establishing a few interesting relationships, he interrupts his journey, in clumsily Orwellian fashion, with weird sound effects, abrupt shifts in locale and silly dialogue. By the time Act One ends, it's not hard to figure out why no other American company has been willing to touch his play with a ten-foot concept.

Worse, director Stephen Cosgrove permits this lumbering bull to roam about instead of taking it firmly by the horns. Scenes that would benefit from a sharp, highly stylized approach, for instance, languish in the half light or fade in and out for no apparent reason. Some of the actors don't have a firm handle on their lines, much less their portrayals. And despite Cosgrove's use of some illusion-shattering shards of theatricality (including a lengthy intermission that needlessly makes a ninety-minute play into a near-two-hour endeavor), the director tries to convince us that what we're watching isn't really a play: Characters enter directly from a dressing-room door; a bald, jumpsuited type lingers and paces about like some crazed, catatonic stage manager in the visible backstage area; and the curtain call is eliminated.

On the brighter side, performers Brett Aune, Kimberly Payetta and the too-infrequently seen Gayle Galvez carry out their multi-role assignments with flair, and Philip A. Russell is an imposing, scary presence as the maniacal chrome-dome. Unfortunately, their efforts aren't enough to lend weight, substance or intrigue to Dorfman's meandering, boring and lunatic fringe.

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Jim Lillie

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