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Darshana/The Last of the Dresden Quartet

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DARSHANA

Stone Age Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

THE LAST OF THE DRESDEN QUARTET

Time Machine Theatre

at Cafe Voltaire

I was always afraid of what might be in the basement when I was growing up. If I had to go down there, into the damp unknown that somehow stayed dark even after I switched on the light, I would rush to get what I was sent for and run back up the stairs, sure there was a monstrous beast only a claw's length away. Of course I was only scaring myself, but it was fun to get that little rush of fear and excitement. Now, when I go down to the basement theater of Cafe Voltaire, there's the same sense of the unknown, but I'm less certain of what might be there: something fun or something just plain awful.

Darshana, an original one-act, was a fairly friendly discovery. While not quite a tour de force, it does offer a sort of pilgrim's progress with an innocent charm. Perhaps its most interesting aspect is that it's written, produced, and performed by Lincoln Park High School students. With a decidedly Tolkien-esque bent, writer-director Brent Puls relates the story of an elf in existential turmoil. When the small pilgrim, Mythius, begins to envy the simplicity of life as a statue, he's visited by a series of archetypal figures. Seeing a woodsman smitten by a beautiful maid convinces Mythius that love is simply lust. When a passing priest cannot provide satisfactory answers to his questions of faith, Mythius doubts the value of religion. When the elf feels the pull of his feelings for a woman, he becomes more confused than ever. Finally Sagacity helps him tame his wild doubts and find peace in his quest for enlightenment.

This brief fairy tale for teenagers is not perfect, but it does offer something not often found in the basement of Voltaire: a message of affirmation. Puls's Shakespearean free verse displays a natural ear for poetic language. Though the cast are far from professional, they make up for their awkwardness and lack of enunciation with an open enthusiasm. Puls might be wise to broaden the physical movement of the piece, however. The actors are far too static, and a large portion of the performance area remains unused.

Sadly, not all the creatures lurking in the Voltaire basement are so benign. Jovan Demetrius Mihailovic's bizarre, overlong one-act The Last of the Dresden Quartet is one of those productions whose every aspect is so mind-numbingly off the mark and illogical that I'm amazed no one caught any of the problems.

The thin plot concerns two musicians stuck in a Lincoln Park restaurant who have lost the remainder of their string quartet under mysterious circumstances. They avoid eating their meal though they talk about being hungry, so it isn't much of a surprise when they reveal that they're vampires who've lived hundreds of years. Heintz, the gay leader of the quartet, is a misogynist with slicked-back hair and an indefinable accent. Throughout the piece he pines for his lost lover, one of the quartet members, and chastises his companion, Dragan, for his overt interest in the waitress. Dragan, an accentless Slav resembling Eddie Munster and inexplicably attired in period dress, laments the loss of his only love to his insatiable thirst for blood. It seems that he also left his glasses behind when he attacked the poor woman. As the waitress interrupts them, bringing more food and expressing a coy interest in Dragan, the next predictable wrinkle comes to light. The waitress is in fact Dragan's lost love, but he doesn't recognize her because of having lost his glasses. She happens to be a viola player, and once she's gotten the wicked and nasty Heintz out of the way, she and Dragan make plans to form another quartet.

This unremarkable story might not be so painful if it weren't handled with so little grace and skill. Mihailovic's redundant script makes the exposition, such as Dragan talking about his lost glasses, painfully obvious. This lack of imagination is worst when it comes to Heintz, who's defined by his drooling over the memory of young male bodies and repeated hisses of "bitch" when the waitress appears.

Compounding his problems as a playwright, Mihailovic directs with little awareness of the environment or stage movement. If not for the plastic food piled on a table, the audience would have no idea the characters are supposed to be in a restaurant. The actors spend most of their time in a vague limbo at the front edge of the performance space, delivering their dialogue out over the audience instead of relating to one another. What they might be looking at is never explained. But perhaps most maddening of all is that two important props--the musicians' instruments--sit onstage untouched when they would surely have made the action more interesting.

It's not surprising that the performances in such a work are uncertain and awkward. Tom Glatz explores new territories of overkill as the frenetic Heintz, while Brian Sheridan delivers all of Dragan's lines as if heavily sedated. Stuck in the middle is the waitress, Mary, played blandly by Michelle Petkus.

I might not have been so disappointed if it hadn't been for the company's claim in the program that they are "soldiers who fight for the Truth; alert guardians of universal human values . . . a mirror only to facilitate human betterment." Come on. Doesn't anyone remember what happened to Oedipus when he made his boasts? Heading up the stairs after the show, I realized I had come face to face with the reality of my not-so-outlandish fear.

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