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Adult Child/Dead Child/Beyond Mozambique

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ADULT CHILD/DEAD CHILD

Mary-Arrchie Theatre

BEYOND MOZAMBIQUE

Mary-Arrchie Theatre

What's moving about Adult Child/Dead Child is that we don't get the whole story--not neatly or completely. Well enough, however: we guess what's missing. And making that effort means we invest in the outcome as we never would in a spell-it-out script. This hour-long chronicle of one woman's hurt and healing, a one-act by British playwright Claire Dowie, offers a scary inside view of abuse, showing the legacy of fear in a single unnamed narrator.

Warmly directed by Marc Rosenbush, Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company's local premiere features Ellen Groves as the troubled woman-child. Sitting on a stool and pointing to projections of key words in her narrative, she spins a gripping story of mounting schizophrenia. At times the lighting shifts into a tight spot, and then she presents the child's unprocessed view of her calamity. Her confession is remarkably unlike a case history; the trauma is presented without sensationalism or recrimination. Initially her account feels unprocessed, but eventually she gains some therapeutic distance on the events of her life.

The girl's perfectionist father and obsessively clean mother had little love to spare for a clumsy, fidgety girl; they lavished it instead on her docile sister. Bad behavior brought swift punishment: the girl was confined to a cupboard, where she felt rejected and abandoned, felt the "lack of love that makes you hit out." Distrusting adults, she still found a friend in a neighbor, whom she simply called My Lady, and in the woman's friendly dog, Benji. The girl's other ally was sinister, an imaginary friend also named Benji. This Benji coaxed the isolated child into bouts of mischief--petty thievery, shouting, throwing objects, hitting a teacher and her father with a hammer, attempting to run away.

Increasingly punished for the evil urgings of her imaginary friend, the girl is sent to family therapy; then, after a breakdown, to a mental hospital and later to a half-way hostel, where she meets people her age, including a good listener named Peter. She also takes medication, and gradually Benji recedes; slowly she begins to see that only love can stop the anger. She takes an apartment, learns to cope with the loneliness of losing the imaginary Benji, and in the most redemptive step, adopts a dog. (She will not, however, name the pet Benji--she calls it "My Lady.") With the dangerous child now dead, the adult child can grow up.

The tale may be familiar, but the details of this abused woman's illness and recovery intrigue. Many children erect a "wall of mistrust and anger" that only gets higher as the pain grows. The victims can't believe anyone will breach that wall--and if their adult selves don't tear it down, they probably are sealed off for life. But, like Ishmael, Dowie's heroine escapes to tell another story.

Groves gives her anonymous survivor grace and spunk, nicely contrasting measured pain with unexpectedly hearty humor (you envy her ability to blame so much on the imp Benji). Denying that she was ever abused ("Everything I got I deserved"), she nonetheless convinces us that she was--and finally persuades herself by admitting some of it.

The plentiful pain in Adult Child/Dead Child is delivered straightforwardly and in telling detail. But the manifold misery in George F. Walker's Beyond Mozambique (running in repertory with Dowie's work) stays bottled up, as stunted as the pointless activity in this frenetic dark comedy. It's hard to imagine a more frustrating play to watch or perform: for 80 minutes six very loud losers in a jungle huff and puff, yet nary a breeze stirs in Mary-Arrchie's sultry Angel Island theater. The script defeats any efforts to bring it to life.

But then this 1974 work is painfully typical of Walker, a Canadian playwright who also penned the terminally stupid Love and Anger and the interminable and overwritten Beautiful City (his Zastrozzi is occasionally witty, however). Walker generally assembles a set of wacky underdogs for whom he professes a compassion the plot never demonstrates; then he adds several heavy-handed overdogs who are never as nasty as they're supposed to be. Apparently he assumes that the oddities of these undeveloped characters are sufficiently intriguing that he can neglect things as mundane as plot, conflict, climax, and resolution. He just piles on the absurdities, then pulls the plug.

Beyond Mozambique is vintage Walker. Set in a mad scientist's compound deep in an unnamed jungle, it depicts the crazed dream of Dr. Enrico Rocco (Richard Cotovsky), a hard-drinking paranoid ex-Nazi now bent on butchering the natives in order to find a cure for cancer. Despite his noble goal, Rocco has "upset the balance": steeped in corruption, he tells us that only the "hell in his heart" and a forlorn hope for redemption keep him going. That's as deep or consistent as Rocco gets.

Also inhabiting the tropical hide-away are Tomas (Lawrence Woshner), Rocco's evil henchman and first victim; Rita (Erika Wood), a porn starlet who rents out her body to raise funds for a comeback film; Lance (Tim Beamish), a disgraced Mountie who's now a clownish cop afflicted with malaria; and Liduc (Guy Van Swearingen), a gay cokehead priest who, completing this homage to

There's much pointless running around in the stifling heat, yet little happens that isn't unfuriatingly arbitrary or sophomorically gross. (Midway through, a three-foot sausage gets hurled into the center aisle.) At the end Tomas seems to become God and destroys them all.

Cotovsky's wobbly staging is as fitful and uneven as the script, both frantic and torpid. It's Olga--the quietest misfit--who becomes, thanks to Fisher's superbly daffy portrayal, a comic gem, a poignant portrait. Nothing else here rises to the occasion she creates, and much falls flat, including Cotovsky's ultimately uninteresting Rocco, a sometimes megalomaniacal and sometimes curiously tentative creation (especially given the flubbed lines on opening night).

Besides Fisher, the stand-out is Robert G. Smith and Kevin Geiger's set, a deliciously skewed and overgrown jungle retreat. The unair-conditioned theater's deadly heat and humidity (on a mild night) created a suitably tropical atmosphere, but even a play ten times better than Walker's would be an ordeal at Angel Island. This one is hell onstage.

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