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A Stab at Fixing/Chamber Music

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A STAB AT FIXING

Transient Theatre

CHAMBER MUSIC

Transient Theatre

Anyone who has taken a play-writing class knows that without conflict, there is no drama. Gordon Hoffman's new play, A Stab at Fixing, overflows with conflict. In it two couples confront all the sordid details of their relationships, from simple jealousy to infidelity to physical abuse. All of this nearly leads to murder.

Even with so much conflict, however, there is very little drama. The problem is that Hoffman does not create characters solid enough to undertake the emotionally tortured journeys he sends them on. As a result, the central conflicts of the play are frustratingly thin.

The play begins as Larry (E. Millard Jones) and Robbi (Christina Koehlinger) are out in the front yard of the apartment building where they both live, trying to start an old lawn mower. Soon Larry's girlfriend May (Kim Ronkin) arrives home from work, and within a few lines Larry tells her that their relationship is over and that he wants her to leave. May responds by saying, "Your romantic notions of love will never work."

At this point in the play, all we know about Larry is that he cannot fix a lawn mower, and all we know about May is that she wears a business suit. The potential dissolution, therefore, doesn't hold much dramatic weight. The relationship between Robbi and Nick (Scot Casey) seems equally sketchy.

Weak characters aren't the only problem. Several scenes are highly improbable, even within the heightened reality of the play. Why do Larry and May rush out to the front yard, May in her negligee, to argue about their sexual problems? Why does Nick rhapsodize about spark plugs and his childhood sprinkler business after his girlfriend has stabbed him in the hand with a kitchen knife? How can Larry hold Nick at knife point in the front yard for ten minutes screaming that he will kill him without any of the neighbors calling the police?

Director Sherrod Hamlin's seemingly random staging did little to clarify the dynamics of the play. Instead, her actors ran at a uniform speed for nearly the entire hour and a half. While the cast tackled the text with conviction, they seemed by turns overzealous and disengaged, as if unable to grab onto anything strong enough to pull them through the evening.

I'm not convinced that anyone can pull off a successful production of Arthur Kopit's Chamber Music. This manic one-act, set in the women's wing of an authoritarian mental hospital, is so full of confusing and confused metaphors that emerging from the play with one's mind intact is a feat in itself.

The eight women who convene the "Sixth Annual Meeting of the Duly-Elected Grievance and Someday Governing Committee of Wing Five, Women's Section" believe themselves to be famous historical figures: Susan B. Anthony, Joan of Arc, Queen Isabella, Amelia Earhart, Gertrude Stein, Pearl White, Osa Johnson, and Mrs. Mozart. This deluded bunch have come together to discuss the supposed impending attack from the men's wing, an attack that may be entirely imagined. In order to scare the men into submission before such an attack can take place, they decide to kill one of their own and present the body to the men with all their signatures attached. Each day they'll send the men a new body in an attempt to make them realize that "they might be next."

Kopit's absurd logic is delightful and disturbing, but trying to sort through all of the potent symbols in this play--like the giant wooden cross carried by the Joan of Arc character, which none of the other characters can stand--is exhausting. Simply trying to understand why Kopit chose these particular historical figures leads to endless head scratching. And since the only men in the play, the Man in White and his assistant, are figures of power and oppression (they work for the hospital), it seems like Kopit intends to shed some light on gender relations on top of everything else. If he is, the light is in scattered points rather than a focused beam.

It's not surprising that Transient Theatre's production is mostly unfocused. The women turn in solid performances by and large--particularly Irene R. White as Pearl White and Deanna Leigh Schreiber as Queen Isabella--but the script is so full of tangents that it's difficult for any momentum to develop. Director Steve Tanner's staging is well conceived, the women planted around an enormous white table that severely restricts their movements, in effect reducing them to schoolchildren. But he allows a bit too much incidental business to muddy his stage picture; with so many characters onstage for the entire play, clean lines and a precise focus are essential to keep the viewer from feeling overwhelmed.

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