Raven Theatre Company

Proteus, a minor deity in Greek mythology and the Odyssey, seems a god peculiarly fit for our times. This ancient sea creature could take any shape he/she/it wished but, if held long enough, was forced to resume the real one. Gifted with enormous knowledge and anxious to keep it to himself, Proteus would desperately change shape to keep from answering questions. But whenever his true shape returned, he’d be forced to speak.

Our 20th-century authority figures — presidents caught red-handed with a “smoking gun,” prime ministers stuck in their scandals, corporate CEOs protesting innocence over Bhopal — have clearly been busy copping Proteus’s act. We will never negotiate with terrorists, says one side of the latest Proteus — while the other sells out the store. The current thrashings-about in Washington — the Tower Commission report, the congressional hearings, the now-whispered threats of impeachment — are all attempts to force our head Proteus to stop being all things to all people, assume his natural shape, and, what the hell, tell the truth.

In Leo Fitzpatrick’s cagey and fascinating satire, Chameleon in Effigy, a world premiere by the Raven Theatre Company, the authority figure and resident Proteus is the glad-handed arch manipulator Mr. Ernest (Michael Menendian), a veteran trickster who believes in the “purgative power of ritual . . . to relieve pressure, to purge the system, to save a life.” Like Jonson’s Volpone, Mr. Ernest surrounds himself with “associates,” each of whom he promises will become his sole successor. Invariably, Mr. Ernest has forced these associates to replace their personalities with stereotypes he can fashion to his own purposes. He requires his black associate, Harlem (Aaron Cabell), to talk jive — though the man grew up in Harlem, Montana (population 1023). Similarly, his boss compels college-educated Blue (James Krag) to play a dumbass construction worker who foulmouths, with Mr. Ernest., the predatory rich. Likewise, Sweetheart (Caroline O’Malley), who gives Mr. Ernest all his ideas, must act the ditz so he can regale her with pseudofeminist lectures about taking charge of her life. Only the bootlicking, literally oily Klepsig (David VanMatre), Mr. Ernest’s crazed, brownnosing sycophant, can be happy in his forced role — because for him it’s not a role.

The exposition unfolds as huckstering Mr. Ernest tries to explain why he’s brought us all together. But he’s interrupted in his snake-oil pitch as each associate, planted in the audience, comes forward to “stop time” (and the action) to argue with the other disgruntled associates over how to overthrow their boss. As Blue rather obviously puts it, “We want the illusion of control without the reality!” Though they agree to refuse to volunteer for whatever devious scheme the plotter has in mind, Mr. Ernest learned long ago how to play one against the other; dividing and conquering, he manages to get them to “come on down” and sit on stage. The one associate refusing to join the game is forcibly removed from the audience by Mr. Ernest’s thugs (Paul Anderson and George Spelvin), and eventually turns up as a zombie.

As his coup de grace, this medicine man unveils before them a stuffed Mr. Ernest clone (the source of the play’s title) and invites them, particularly “wonder worm” Klepsig, to attack it: “This is your big chance to get back at me for all the broken promises and abuse. . . .” Naturally, they suspect a trap. And of course it is, all part of this super chameleon’s fiendish desire to prove to all his associates (audience included) that the only changes permitted are on the inside — where Mr. Ernest smugly assumes they can’t possibly matter.

Fitzpatrick’s wizard allegory is also a playwright’s tour de force: the dazzling wordplay is as chameleonlike as his protagonist. Seamlessly Mr. Ernest (and Menendian in John Gaynor’s limber staging) moves from blue-collar, beer-swilling gruntings to jive talk to evangelistic rant to sly-fox insinuations, all with contagious pizzazz and unbridled zest. Contrasted with Menendian’s barefaced confidence are the growing bellows of desperation from the cornered associates as they discover they’re trapped in the symbols they were employed to assume. (In fact, Chameleon makes for a very loud hour.) With appropriate earnestness, Gaynor carries out Mr. Ernest’s casting against type: Krag’s empty bluster, O’Malley’s tough-girl pose, Cabell’s deliberate anti-soul brother blandness. VanMatre makes the cringing parasite Klepsig, the only character who’s happy with his act, into the most odious underling until next week’s congressional hearings. Our top Proteus would be proud.