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The Ice Fishing Play; Cash Karma; Diary of a Madman

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THE ICE FISHING PLAY

In Pact Theatre Company

at the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, Baird Hall

CASH KARMA

Organic Theater Company

Greenhouse, Lab Theater

DIARY OF A MADMAN

Wisdom Bridge Theatre

"The measure of a man is how much truth he can stand," a former roommate of mine was fond of saying, a cruel smile flickering over his lips. Of course, he was a classically trained dancer. His whole life revolved around grueling classes in which he was constantly forced to confront the truth about himself and his body--his bleeding feet, his cramping legs, the extension that just wouldn't happen that day.

Thankfully the rest of us are allowed to live in a more or less blissful state of ignorance. Which may be one reason so many plays--from Oedipus Rex to King Lear to Krapp's Last Tape--revolve around people being forced to admit some nasty truth about themselves. There's something fascinating about watching others do onstage what we do so reluctantly in our own private lives.

Kevin Kling's The Ice Fishing Play concerns an old man in an ice-fishing shack in Minnesota who slowly comes to realize how empty his life is. The Minneapolis-based playwright--best known in Chicago for Lloyd's Prayer, produced by Remains several years ago--wraps this unhappy realization in a comedy. The play is packed with more Minnesota jokes than an episode of Prairie Home Companion. And the plot is a nonsexual variation on the comic lovers' lament: "Just when we're, um . . . the phone rings." Ron's retreat is invaded by all manner of visitors--his wife, his brother, his best friend, even a pair of evangelical preachers.

As in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape and all of Shakespeare's tragedies, the humor here is meant to throw the serious side of the story into sharper relief. But Kling's comedy rarely inspires more than a quiet smile. His send-up of rural characters and their foibles is so mild it makes the toothless Greater Tuna seem biting satire.

Maybe if Kling had been more committed to the play's serious message, the comedy would have been funnier. But he seems almost as unwilling to confront the dark side of his characters' lives as they are. Whenever the play is in danger of becoming moving--as when Ron's brother delivers a speech about being in Vietnam--Kling diminishes the moment with one or another distancing device from the postmodern playwright's bag of tricks. The story about Vietnam is told as if the war were a fishing trip gone wrong. The message: Never enter a fishing contest you know you can't win.

Even the title--The Ice Fishing Play--is an act of emotional evasion: very pomo, very Letterman-esque. It's as if Kling wanted to make sure we knew from lights up that this is just a play and his characters are mere verbal fabrications created to fill two acts of stage time.

Nothing in In Pact Theatre's production makes up for Kling's emotional coldness--in fact, the production's tentativeness complements the play's. In the passive lead, Gerry Daly fails completely to give Ron a third dimension. He remains on the stage what he is on the page--a cipher with a Minnesota accent. Likewise Brian Worrall and Pepper Stebbins's cartoonish takes on the visiting evangelists drain all the humor from this archetypal pair of fools.

As director, Scott Tomhave tries for but never quite finds the right rhythm and style to release the play's energy. As a result all of its flaws leap to the foreground while its virtues--mostly Kling's quiet wit and his eye for telling quirks--are all but hidden. Even Ron's devastating moment of realization, when we know he knows there is nothing left for him to live for, feels less like a moment of truth than the climax of a play intended to make us feel fear and pity. Alas, poor Ron, we know him not, Horatio. Even after watching him ruminate about his life for nearly two hours.

A similar problem trips up Bill Corbett's Cash Karma. The causes are different--Corbett doesn't give us too little, he gives us too much--but the effect is the same. Every character in this play, which is about a family riven by a daughter's membership in a religious cult, eventually contradicts himself or herself. One minute the mother is concerned for her child's safety, and the next demanding that the deprogrammer they hired get violent if he has to. The deprogrammer veers from being an almost satanic manipulator--he first enters in a red jacket and reeking of sulfur--to the sort of pathetic schlub who can't threaten anyone even with a loaded gun. The daughter herself turns in the wind with a vertigo-inducing velocity--one minute she's skeptical of the cult, the next she's a member selling flowers on the street, the next her mind is her own, the next she's back in, the next she's out.

Now, contradictions are the spice of life. And a clever playwright could have woven these contradictions into a story about constantly evolving characters. Corbett is not that crafty, however: he's too blunt a storyteller to handle his characters' various changes gracefully. Corbett actually seems to lose track of what his play is about. At first it seems a fairly straightforward attack on cultish religions. Then it seems an attack on deprogramming in the vein of Charisma, produced earlier this season at the Next Theatre. Finally it evolves into a mild comedy of errors and sudden reversals: the deprogrammer is deprogrammed, and the parents turn out to be more enslaved than the cult members.

With so many twists in the plot, no wonder it's hard to tell who the main character is. Early on, the protagonist seems to be the daughter. Halfway through, it becomes clear that the schlemiel of a deprogrammer is meant to take center stage, a place for which he is as ill suited as he is to his employment. Possibly a stronger actor in the role would have dominated the play earlier. But I doubt it. Corbett's heavy-handed character development and his tin ear guarantee that even a potentially compelling character like Fisher lacks credibility. And Richard Shavzin just doesn't have the charisma or comic range to make this complex, confused character believable.

Not that director Paul Frellick has helped matters much, gathering together a cast of wooden actors who turn even Corbett's finest scenes--such as the moment the daughter and her friend are seduced into taking a "personality test" that hooks them on the cult--into weak ones. Of the seven cast members, only Jennifer Yeo as the cult leader Christina and Todd Frampton as her devoted follower remain believable throughout. Michael Vernon Hamilton and Patrice Fletcher never for a moment seem real parents, they're just still-green non-Equity actors playing parents in a flawed play. Lindsay Porter falls somewhere in the middle: she's compelling when she plays the sweet brainwashed cult-member daughter Megan, but she can't quite carry off the angry-young-woman pose she adopts when she's out in the world.

By the play's end Corbett would have us believe that Megan and the deprogrammer have glimpsed the truth and are better people for it. But nothing in the preceding two hours prepares us for these "epiphanies," which seem just more contradictions of all that has come before.

Three years ago, Rush Pearson premiered his marvelous one-man adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's short story Diary of a Madman at the Prop Theatre. A perfect blend of comedy, satire, and pathos, Pearson's show first disarmed us with a charmingly eccentric clerk--who grandiosely believed he was irreplaceable because he sharpened his bosses' quills--then moved us to tears by showing us the clerk's slow, painful descent into madness.

Since that time Pearson has performed the work around the United States and Canada and now has returned for an engagement at Wisdom Bridge. I wish I could report that years of performing Diary of a Madman have deepened Pearson's understanding of Aksenty Ivonov Poprishchin and transformed what was a wonderful show (I liked it so much I saw it twice at the Prop and once at the Abbie Hoffman Festival) into an excellent one.

But sadly Pearson seems to have lost touch with what made his show so fine. In the current incarnation, Pearson begins by revealing Poprishchin's madness--he delivers Gogol's early, benignly humorous journal entries with a crazed intensity I associate with the more scary street people. Only later, as his character loses his grip on the world, does he try to charm us and win our laughter. By then, however, it's too late. Laughing at this clearly deranged character would be cruel. Yet he's too angry and dangerous to move us to pity.

Which means we don't identify with Gogol's supposedly likable lunatic but with the stiff, hidebound authority figures who drove him mad--his baffled boss, his boss's silly, spoiled daughter--who have to deal with him. This in turn completely subverts Gogol's satire of the ever-inflexible Russian bureaucracy. It's like watching a stage version of Gulag Archipelago that has everyone rooting for Stalin.

Maybe Pearson needs to give his Madman a rest. Moving on to something new might inspire and challenge him and release the marvelously gifted funnyman who made the first incarnation of this show such a hit.

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