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Verses./One Two Three Four Five/Mazel

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Verses., Hermit Theater, Rhinoceros Theater Festival, at the Lunar Cabaret, One Two Three Four Five, Rhinoceros Theater Festival, at Prop Thtr, and Mazel, Still Point Theater Collective, Rhinoceros Theater Festival, at Prop Thtr. Diverse subject matter and performance styles have long been a hallmark of the Rhino fest--but cultural diversity has been less prominent. Idris Goodwin's Verses., dramatizing the shifts in a longtime friendship between two African-American men, marks the playwright-director as a talent to watch. Phillip (Warren Jackson) is tired of being the dependable good guy and asks his cocky best friend, aspiring actor Aaron (Ansa Akyea), for advice on how to be a bastard. Aaron is going through his own crisis of confidence--he keeps rejecting roles he deems racist, such as Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. (His cogent phrase for such writing is "the Mighty Whitey Yuck Mouth.")

Goodwin's script touches on intriguing issues, such as whether one's acts are determined by personal integrity or self-sabotage. But the play lacks a satisfying conclusion and fails to sort out the tangled roots of Phillip and Aaron's friendship. Still, Goodwin has a well-honed sense for dialogue, and despite some awkward transitions, the actors give honest, gritty performances.

The life cycle of romance is put under the microscope in Brian Torrey Scott's wistful One Two Three Four Five, which tangentially uses the laws of thermodynamics as metaphors for love, embodied in two couples played by the same actors, Abby Cucci and Mike Federico. Scott's previous effort--Histrionica With Banjo, performed last winter--showed tremendous intelligence and skill but also a pronounced tendency to choose smarty-pants gamesmanship over emotional accessibility. Less ambitious than Histrionica, this play is also more mature and assured. The playwright's simple, deft staging (including some evocative projections of Matthew Jewell's photographs) aids his funny, poignant look at the hardships of the heart.

Hardships of unimaginable brutality are illuminated in Karine Koret's Mazel. Based on interviews with her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, Koret's solo piece pays tribute to the life force. Beau O'Reilly's staging makes inventive use of props--bales of hay in which the endangered family hides from the Nazis, scarves to represent a doomed infant daughter. Koret's performance as her grandfather is physically adept and remarkably devoid of bitterness and histrionics. And she brings the story almost literally into our laps by handing out Star of David paper cutouts--then, chillingly, collecting them when the story shifts to the roundups in the ghetto.

The narrative does get a bit confusing and repetitive as various family members seek shelter from sympathetic Polish neighbors. But overall the piece celebrates the ability to endure with love and courage--and, of course, luck--and gives dignity and warmth to the vanishing generation of Holocaust survivors.

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