Men behaving badly

Posted on 30 Apr 2009 at 9:13am
By Arnold Wayne Jones Staff Writer

Murder! Infidelity! Chauvinism! Guys act out this week in theater


POOLING AROUND: An aspiring actor (Jared Eaton, left) seduces a nebbishy writer (Andrew Phifer) in WaterTower’s clubby quasi-superhero comedy ‘Based on a Totally True Story.’

The bloodletting that goes in Titus Andronicus from Kitchen Dog Theater rivals that of Mel Gibson’s recent directorial efforts, and I suspect Shakespeare would be just fine with that. "Titus" is a violent revenge play, after all, not much on poetry but jam-packed with action — I counted 10 onstage murders, a rape and some rather nasty mutilations. Think of it as Elizabethan torture porn — "Saw" in iambic pentameter.

It shares something else in common with Gibson’s "Apocalypto:" Its setting. Moved from ancient Rome to the Mayan Empire, this production segues quite handily between the barbarism of European and Central American peoples — chillingly so.

At a quick-but-not-exactly-painless 90 minutes, some parts of the production don’t work, like Joe Nemmers’ crazy mullet in the title role and such baroque splatter that the audience laughed awkwardly when it should probably be horrified. It doesn’t help that John Flores plays Saturnius so much for comedy, the audience is primed to take it as spoon occasionally.

No matter; much of it does work, viscerally at least. Like "Sweeney Todd" and "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," it turns cannibalism into something you almost cheer for with such prodigious gore gushing through the set, you practically want to dip a piece of bread in while you walk out. Is that sick, or what?

There’s pain of a different kind in Based on a Totally True Story, playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s unnervingly autobiographical comedy at WaterTower Theatre. Unnerving, because Aguirre-Sacasa jumps the line between "write what you know" over into "clubby insider handjob." The masturbatory allusions to the writer’s own life (here, his alter ego pens the Flash comic; Aguirre-Sacasa writes Spider-Man) are so plentiful that watching it becomes an exercise in theatrical "Where’s Waldo:" How many obscure New York references and veiled movie jibes can you pick out to prove you read the Village Voice too?

Roberto… er, Ethan (Andrew Phifer) pays the rent by writing The Flash but feeds his soul writing plays. One, a downer filled with death, is optioned by a Hollywood producer (Mary Anna Austin), but getting the screenplay adapted proves a burden on Ethan’s relationship with his new boyfriend Michael (Beau Trujillo) and his dad (Barry Nash). He obsesses, cheats, shuts down. Things go badly before going well before going badly again. But there’s hope…

There are not many surprises here: The crises, and especially how Ethan reacts to them, seem manufactured, and the jokes aren’t quite funny enough. Still, much of it turns out to be quite charming. Ethan himself ends up annoyingly unlikable — a neurotic self-absorbed narcissist — but Phifer plays him with a dreamy naivete. And Jared Eaton, playing a variety of roles, is dreamy in a completely different way: He’s wonderful eye-candy and that’s sometime enough to keep your attention. Heck, let’s face it: The beefcake was what got most gay boys reading comic books in the first place. Work it, guys!

In contrast, Sarah Plain & Tall is no more gay than a church pancake breakfast, but its appeals, including a lilting score, strong performances and some of the most ravishing designs of any show this season, provide all you need.

This world premiere, based on the Newbery Award-winning book, is a bit of "The Sound of Music," a bit "Mary Poppins," even a bit of "The Bird Cage." Sarah (Becca Ayers) treks from the cliffs of Maine to the wheatfields of Kansas to consider marrying Jacob (Herndon Lackey), a bristly widower looking for someone to help him with his children and his farm. The son, Caleb (Max Ary), takes to her immediately but the daughter, Anna (Kate Wetherhead) plots her downfall.

Children’s literature isn’t known for its edginess, and the plot clings closely to well-trod ground (see the above-mentioned musicals). But the lyrics here — especially the S&M-influenced "Captain of the Ship" — sometimes venture into pure adulthood, and even when it’s only being delightful (which it constantly is), it’s basically captivating.

Ayers has a proud mien and sturdy way about her that perfectly captures the fiery independence of a woman beset by chauvinism, and Lackey turns what could have been a brusque stereotype into a realistically tender but emotionally rigid frontiersman.

The show still needs some work — the ending is abrupt, and the song "The Captain’s Daughter" needs to be cut entirely — but if this is how the Dallas Theater Center ends its last season at the Kalita, I can’t wait to see how it launched at the Wyly in the fall.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 1, 2009.

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