Under a Mantle of Stars, Jaboa Theatre Ensemble, at the Chopin Theatre. Playwright Manuel Puig explores the nature of alienation and the thin, often tenuous border between reality and fantasy in this play about a sterile bourgeois household. Although these themes are certainly present in all of his work (most notably Kiss of the Spider Woman), this drama is quite unlike any of the seven novels he penned before his death in 1990. Here his characters have titles and functions instead of names and motivations. Concrete actions take a backseat to intangible ideas. The only thing about the play that makes complete sense is that it’s completely absurd.

Keeping a play this dense from getting pinned under the potentially oppressive weight of its abstract ideals and messages would be a mammoth challenge for even the most seasoned director and actors. Jaboa’s production hits the bull’s-eye, however, thanks mainly to director Eric Slater, who cleverly dilutes Puig’s concentrated script with some moments of pure comic relief. His staging preserves the play’s potency while granting the audience ample time to properly digest its barrage of nuances.

Under Slater’s tight direction, the five actors tear through the script with remarkable aplomb, delivering the ridiculous dialogue with deadpan sincerity. At times individual performances careen dangerously toward extremes, but in general the cast manages to strike a balance between understatement and overstatement. Puig’s play may be centered around a lifeless household, but Jaboa’s production is never dull.

–Nick Green