Power of the pyramid

Kitchen Dog debuts ‘Ponzi,’ a financial horror story

NOUVEAU POOR | An heiress (Christina Vela, left) flirts with a man (Max Hartman) and his wife (Diane Casey-Box) in the economic meltdown play ‘Ponzi.” (Photo by Matt Mrozek)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

PONZI
The MAC, 3120 McKinney Ave. Through June 25. $15–$25.
KitchenDogTheater.org.

…………………….

“The rich are different from you and me,” Scott Fitzgerald waxed, to which Hemingway allegedly responded, “Yes — they have more money.” But they are different. Money is never a big deal to people who have it, so they stand above it all. They don’t talk about how much they have, or how much things cost because, at some point, what difference does it make? If you don’t have to work to earn it, its value is fungible.

Then again, losing money — losing a great deal of it — is something everyone can understand. It becomes a source of ego, of pride. How would you feel if you pissed away $20 mil you didn’t deserve in the first place?

That is the situation posed to Catherine (Christina Vela), the regal heiress in Ponzi, the world premiere mainstage production at Kitchen Dog Theater’s New Works Festival. Catherine’s father was a legendary up-from-his-bootstraps self-made man who left Catherine two things: A solid fiscal philosophy and millions in cash to execute it.

She’s honored him by not being as showy and shallow as Allison (Diane Casey-Box), the quintessential nouveau riche Real Housewife, a woman with more cents than sense. Allison and hubby Bryce (Max Hartman) are enraptured by the get-rich-quick scheme of a flashy money manager, and their enthusiasm — plus Bryce’s unabashed flirtation with Catherine, driven in part by his lust for her balance sheet — leads to a series of bad mistakes.

Ponzi should frighten you more than it does, the way the Oscar winning documentary Inside Job did. There’s so much techno-talk — about the gold standard, how Social Security is a classic example of a Ponzi scheme that no one will touch, about how greed feeds pyramid schemes, about the lemming mentality that can cause sensible people to behave irrationally — that it needs to chill you. Like the financial meltdown, it’s not that some people didn’t see it coming; it’s that none of these so-called experts had any idea how reckless they were being. (The use of tarot cards to emphasize the randomness of life and fortune is a witty touch.)

Such horror is a ripe fruit that playwright Elaine Romero should have picked. Instead, she removes some of the universality of the tale by making it so specific to these characters.

That’s not entirely a bad thing. Instead of getting lost in the esoterica of money, she concentrates on the personality traits that drive people to make bad decisions. An undercurrent of sexual tension — between Catherine and Bryce, but just as electric (though more subtly expressed) between Catherine and Allison — makes the seductive power of the purse all the more visceral. Money is the new toy — and it’s a sex toy, at that.

Casey-Box plays the betrayed wife better than just about any actress in town; she’s always quick to turn on the ravenously uncensored switch in her characters’ brains, the one that makes people both pitiable and annoying. It’s delicious fun to watch. Vela is good as Catherine, but her final arc strikes a false note; it seems literary, not realistic.

Even still, the actors ply all these twists in one the KDT’s best-looking plays in years, with lush costumes from Tina Parker and a sleek set by Bryan Wofford. Amid such glam, the seduction of money begins to work on us, too. Maybe more is more, even if we hate to admit it.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 3, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Screen Review: ‘The Eagle’

BIRDS OF A FEATHER | Shields and longswords give homoerotic meaning to the master-slave relationship in ‘The Eagle.’

Roman holiday

Homoeroticism fuels the beefcake battles of ‘Eagle’

STEVE WARREN  | Contributing Writer
thinhead@mindspring.com

The first great gay love story of 2011 is here, though you have to read between the lines to see it. The Eagle is part of the historical beefcake genre (formerly known as the sword and sandal flick), re-popularized by Gladiator and 300. Fans of the latter will be disappointed to see these Romans wearing more than those Greeks, though they do occasionally shed their tops and sleep in loincloths.

You might rather see Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell in a dance-off than playing a master and slave who exchange roles — or maybe you wouldn’t. At least they have choreographed battle scenes, and a fight that gives them an excuse to roll around on the ground together.

Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum) is trying to restore the honor of his family and Rome by recapturing the symbolic eagle — the original gold standard — that disappeared 20 years before, along with 5,000 troops of the Ninth Legion under his father’s command. He volunteers for duty in Britain, near where the Ninth was last seen. When he arrives there’s a shot of some men checking him out that could have come from a prison movie. He immediately takes charge and orders the fort redecorated.

Wounded and transferred after a disastrous attack, Marcus saves that slave Esca (Bell) from a gladiator. That’s when Marcus’ uncle (Donald Sutherland), with a matchmaking gleam in his eye, assigns Esca to serve Marcus; Esca does so, “even though I hate everything you stand for.” They then meet Guern (Mark Strong), a survivor of the Ninth, who directs them to the “painted warriors” who have the eagle.

Those colorful natives have maintained their fighting skills, even though there’s no sign of anyone for them to fight. Esca and Marcus swap identities, with Marcus posing as the slave. The plot then comes down to the adage, “If you love somebody set them free.” And how far that love goes … well, that’s where the mind wanders wildly.

Tatum, though not a bad actor, is out of his depth here. It doesn’t help that he occasionally picks up an accent from one or another of his co-stars, who come from all over the Anglo-American map. Bell gives Esca the same fierce determination Billy Elliot had, but less ambiguity than the script demands.

That The Eagle was directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) explains why it looks like a class act. His battle scenes are the trendy chaotic sort, offering no context for individual close-up conflicts and making you wait until the dust clears to figure out what happened.

As serious historical fiction The Eagle doesn’t soar but neither does it crash. As a bromance … please! Closeted as it is, The Eagle may be the hottest gay love story until Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar has Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer going at it.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 11, 2011.

—  John Wright