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2/26/2009

The Arts

OTP's brave take on the ultimate taboo
And two other promising spectacles

 

Blackbird

Through March 29 at Winter Park Playhouse; 407-491-1397

www.otp.cc; $28

Ray is a man in his mid-50s and Una is 27. While a relationship between two people at those disparate ages might raise eyebrows in some circles, Ray and Una cohabited 15 years earlier, when he was 40 and she, just 12. That union raised not only eyebrows, but also the specter of imprisonment, years of sorrow, deep anger, broken families and shattered psyches. Blackbird by David Harrower is a harrowing play; its uncomfortable subject is pedophilia.

As the story of these wounded souls opens, Una has found Ray after not seeing him for the intervening decade and a half. She decided to confront him, meeting in the break room of the nameless company where he has landed after many years in jail. Ray is terrified at the prospect of rupturing hurts that he has tried hard to suture, while Una’s motives for coming seem as confused as her feelings for her ex-abuser. As they remember their shared past, we discover that, while there was misguided lust and poor judgment involved in their liaison, there was also true tenderness – and maybe even love.

Under the direction of Richard Width, the Orlando Theatre Project production returns OTP to its former distinction as one of the area’s foremost producers of challenging works. Veteran actor Jim Howard gives a riveting performance as Ray, and Krista Pigott as Una matches him accusation for accusation and regret for regret. Both performers imbue Harrower’s script with acute pathos and sympathetic understanding.

What makes Blackbird so infuriating to some – and satisfying to others – is the playwright’s refusal to condemn, even as he assigns blame to Una and especially to Ray, the adult in the situation. But Harrower’s protagonists are not two-dimensional cutouts that can be blithely cured by Dr. Phil in a half-hour segment. Una is now a distraught adult who suffered as much from a sexual encounter she was too young to understand, as she did from its years-long aftermath: opprobrium from her community, self-loathing and an inability to forget. Ray has tried to rebuild his life, but cannot escape responsibility for his actions, nor the nagging doubt that he has damaged the inner core of two human beings.

Blackbird can be a difficult play to watch and is not recommended for children. But it is gratifying for adults to witness the exploration of its taboo subject matter by theatrical artists who are not afraid to “hold a mirror up to nature.”

-— Al Krulick

The Iliad, the Odyssey, and All of Greek Mythology in 99 Minutes or Less

Through March 1 at Garden Theatre, Winter Haven; 407-877-4736

www.jestertheater.com; $22

A winded title like The Iliad, the Odyssey, and All of Greek Mythology in 99 Minutes or Less can be intimidating, tongue-in-cheek as it might be. Fortunately, the Jester Theater Company does all the heavy lifting in this history lesson, so audiences need only laugh to pass this class.

The show kicks off with a quick-fire creation, as the gods of the pantheon are introduced like celebs at a red-carpet sporting event. After man is created (and Prometheus is chained to a rock for handing him a barbecue lighter), there’s time for a few famously ill-fated love stories like Pandora’s Box fashioned into latter-day sitcoms. A headlong sprint through all 24 books of the Iliad, in which the Greeks offer to trade Helen back to Troy for an Xbox CCCLX and Hector and Achilles’ slo-mo battle takes out the stage hand, takes us to intermission. The shorter second half features a dating game show deconstruction of Pyramus and Thisbe, a poker tournament of the damned and the finals of Greek Hero Idol.

Jay Hopkins directs his script (co-written with John Hunter) with literal clockwork precision: There’s a digital countdown on the wall. He puts his hardworking cast (Jamie Bridwell, Jamie Cline, Gina DiRoma, Ryan Gigliotti and Chase Padgett) through exhausting paces as they sprint through Hellenic pseudo-history. The celestial caricatures range from ridiculous (hip-hop Mercury messengers) to sublime (Vulcan is a Spock-eared geek), and there’s no required reading list to understand and enjoy them.

-— Seth Kubersky

Laughing Wild

Jan. 19-22 at Sleuths Mystery Dinner Shows; 407-363-1985

www.sleuths.com; $19

Christopher Durang’s 1987 serio-comedy Laughing Wild starts with a pair of 30-minute monologues, featuring two self-obsessed New Yorkers with equally extreme but exactly opposite neuroses. First up is a manic Woman (Janine Klein) who opens the play with the admission, “It’s just too difficult to be alive.” She’ll assault a stranger in the grocery for lingering too long in the tuna-fish aisle and wish aloud that she’d “been aborted as a fetus,” then whirl around to gush over street musicians and recite the AA-approved Serenity Prayer. A victim of her “useless but active unconscious,” she copes by “laughing wild amidst severest woe,” which might work for Samuel Beckett but is fairly freaky coming from her.

Next up is a Man (David Almeida) delivering a speech at some sort of self-help seminar. He’s a veteran of multiple “personality workshops” and is trying to perpetuate positive thinking, but keeps getting sucked into a quagmire of existential questions. After all, it’s hard to trust in a God who is “silent on the Holocaust, but gets involved in the Tony Awards.” There’s a thin line between a “glass half full” kinda guy and a self-affirmation asshole; by the time he outs himself he’s pretty much ground that line to dust.

The third act brings them together in a surreal series of sketches, overflowing with obscurities ranging from dream-sharing during the harmonic convergence to a talk show featuring a 17th-century Christ-child called the Infant of Prague. Both actors are perfectly cast as these likeably unlikable lunatics, and director Laurel Clark does a fine job keeping things moving in the limited playing space. There’s an underlying plea for empathy as a path to divinity, but the third act is too absurdly abstract for the philosophy to land with emotional oomph. And while not a period piece per se, references to Sally Jesse Raphael and George McGovern are distractingly dated.

Though imperfect, this production portends well for Sleuth’s ongoing “It’s No Mystery!” series, which presents new shows for one weekend only, continuing Feb. 26-28 with Tod Kimbro’s In the Blue cabaret.

-— SK

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