Strawdog Theatre


Raven Theatre

“The sun . . . / In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds / On half the nations,” wrote John Milton in Paradise Lost. In two of their early efforts, playwrights Sam Shepard and Christopher Durang use stories of disaster as springboards for exploring moral corruption on individual and broad social scales. Written about ten years apart, the two one-acts have been paired by Strawdog Theatre in an uneven but interesting program, in which the less well developed Icarus’s Mother is redeemed by superb and sensitive ensemble playing while the better-written Titanic stays afloat on the strength of its script despite a terribly sloppy production.

First presented in 1965 at the legendary cradle of off-off-Broadway theater, Caffe Cino, Icarus’s Mother finds five spoiled, idle kids (though they’re played by actors in their 20s, they might very well be teenagers) lazing around a beach after a Fourth of July picnic, waiting for night to fall and the fireworks to begin. Two boys, Howard and Bill, initiate a series of vicious psychological games, played with such deadpan seriousness that the audience–and probably the characters–can never be sure if they are real or not; this is early Shepard at his most Pinteresque, though with a distinct American accent. Played with cool cunning by Scott Lowell, Howard is the leader of this team of terrorists, while hulking David Sinkus makes Bill the muscle behind Howard’s mind. They’re like a jackal and a lion.

The games these two creeps play operate on a system of reward and punishment, where the only stakes are belonging. A small airplane flying overhead prompts Howard to create a fantasy in which the pilot is waving to his adulterous wife–whose role he insists his girlfriend Pat take despite her discomfort. When Pat (played with tingling vulnerability by Adrianne Krstansky) expresses a desire to take a walk alone for a while, Howard leads Bill and the others–Bill’s girlfriend Jill (Kerry Richlan) and the nerdy hanger-on Frank (Adam Goldman) –in a ritual of ostracism so brutal that it reduces Pat to tears; then Howard’s aim shifts as he guides the rest of the group in mocking Frank’s wish to go off by himself for a pee in the woods. A later game brings the focus back to the airplane, which Howard pretends has crashed into the ocean; when that fantasy turns into horrifying reality, it’s as if Howard and Bill’s make-believe machinations can come true by sheer force of their viciousness.

Ted Altschuler’s staging, played on a bare white stage that is convincingly transformed into a seaside park by Bill Girard’s lighting and Altschuler’s evocative sound design, is keenly attuned to the subtle shifts of feeling and intention that motor this intriguing, quintessentially 60s effort. The actors make the most of Shepard’s chillingly ambiguous characterization and the quirky lyricism of his language, filled here with images of flying and falling that connect the doomed plane to the exploding fireworks whose beauty is intimately connected to their self-destruction. Linking the all-American ritual of Independence Day fireworks displays to the myth of Icarus, the boy who dared to fly too high and died when the sun melted the wax on his artificial wings, Icarus’s Mother foretells the end of the irresponsible, self-indulgent life-style embodied by Shepard’s affluent, insensitive youths; as Bob Dylan might have said around the same time, a hard plane’s a-gonna fall.

There’s nothing subtle or ambiguous about Titanic, an absurd sexual farce written by Durang when he was still at Yale in the mid-1970s. Victoria and Richard Tammurai are a rich couple on an ocean crossing aboard the famous ship, whose one ambition is to sit at the captain’s table. Traveling with them is their son Teddy, whose psychosexual anxieties are (as Durang would title a later play) beyond therapy. Poor Teddy is still treated by his mother as if he were 14, though he’s more like 20; he’s the football that haughty Victoria and effete Richard kick around in their constant battle for psychological supremacy, and as long as he’s still their baby he can be the child for whom they resolve to stay married.

Teddy’s only hope for escape is Lidia, the captain’s daughter, whose one purpose in life is to sink the ship she’s on. But Titanic is a mock disaster movie without a disaster. Durang’s Titanic is a ship that refuses to sink; the redemptive flushing-out God gave Noah’s world is denied this one.

In this seafaring Satyricon Durang’s vision of pervasive decadence includes a plethora of sexual kinks, including bisexuality, bestiality, bondage, incest, transvestism, prostitution, and genital mutilation. While Victoria jumps into bed with the dildo-wearing captain, Richard chases after hunky seamen (the play’s shipboard setting gives Durang an excuse for plenty of “Hello there, sailor” jokes) before finally settling for Teddy. This is after Teddy has lost his virginity to Lidia, whose habit of keeping small pets in her vagina proves dangerous to her multiple lovers (a particularly sordid running joke involves Lidia stuffing lettuce up her dress to feed her hamster). Lidia also has multiple identities; sometimes she’s Harriet, Victoria’s lesbian lover (“I was remembering other voices, other wombs,” sighs Harriet as she recalls the affair), and sometimes she’s Annabella, Richard and Victoria’s daughter–which doesn’t stop Victoria from marrying Lidia in a double ceremony in which Richard takes a veiled Teddy as his bride.

In order to convey the playwright’s serious intent, Titanic needs to be played with a light, stylish sophistication that heightens the script’s incessant vulgarities and depravities through contrast. But Charles Harper’s direction is sloppy, noisy, and tedious, and his cast almost always mistakes volume for intensity. Only Jamie Pachino’s Lidia has the restraint and variety to register the serious moral outrage that lies under Durang’s chaotic comic crudities.

Michael Menendian begins his production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker by breaking down the imaginary wall that separates actors from audience. Even before the play begins, the cast members run through the small Raven Theatre in costume and makeup, yelling at each other to get ready and peddling iced tea and lemonade to patrons in the auditorium and lobby.

It’s a nice human touch, and very much in keeping with Wilder’s own efforts to bring viewers closer to the people they’re watching onstage through such devices as direct addresses by characters to the audience. So is Ray Toler’s clever set, which transforms a cramped playing area into a series of locations with colorful cartoon backdrops. Unfortunately, nothing in Raven Theatre’s actual playing of The Matchmaker comes close to fulfilling its potential. Instead, this marvelous romantic comedy about 19th-century courtship falls flat under the weight of stiff staging and stereotyped characterization. Wilder’s script contrasts the mating of four separate couples–curmudgeonly middle-aged Yonkers merchant Horace Vandergelder and matronly, manipulative matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi, who seek rejuvenation as they head toward their golden years; Cornelius, Horace’s 30-ish clerk, who travels to New York in search of adventure, and Irene Malloy, the young widow with whom he finds it; Horace’s niece Ermengarde and aspiring poet Ambrose Kemper, who elope despite Horace’s disapproval; and Barnaby Tucker and Minnie Fay, two giddy teenagers.

These are stock characters, drawn from a tradition extending back through French farce, Shakespearean romance, Italian commedia dell’arte, and Roman comedy; yet Wilder turns them into vital human beings through myriad idiosyncratic traits and through his belief (expressed also in Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth) that the seemingly petty happinesses and heartbreaks of common lives are an expression of cosmic order.

In Menendian’s staging, they remain mostly stock characters, and not very funny ones at that; the only texture in this production is found in Kate Mitchell’s lush period costumes (which beautifully evoke a time when you could take a trip to New York City without having to pack a piece). Robin Baber is singularly wrong as Dolly, who sets out to snare Horace under the guise of arranging his marriage to another woman; regarding the other characters with a cool, calculating eye and a forced, almost chilling laugh, Baber plays Dolly as if she was a two-legged version of Ursula, the larger-than-life sea witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Bill McGough shows us none of Horace’s gradual transformation from gruff pomposity to compassionate wisdom; JoAnn Montemurro shows us Irene Malloy’s briskness but not her impetuous streak; Chuck Spencer and Andrew Snyder play the adventure-seeking Cornelius and Barnaby as an overaged, community-theater Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; and Donna Jerousek resorts to mere lung power as Ermengarde. Only Jack Cohen, in the small but telling role of Horace’s tippling assistant, finds the wry, philosophical edge that should permeate this play.