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Native Speech/The Great American Cheese Sandwich

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NATIVE SPEECH

Tight & Shiny Productions
at At the Gallery-Chopin Theatre

As much as I like Eric Overmyer's Native Speech, I can't imagine a successful production of this impossibly dense script, about an underground DJ and the deteriorating world of junkies, prostitutes, and thugs he inhabits. It's packed with seemingly endless hip jargon, and not only is the language enormously difficult, but the mad rush of intentionally disjointed scenes proves nearly overwhelming.

At the same time Overmyer's protagonist, Hungry Mother, is inescapably seductive. This ultimate bad boy jury-rigs a radio station in his basement, broadcasting whenever and whatever he likes, from psychological weather reports ("The weather outlook is for continued existential dread under cloudy skies with low-grade distress") to made-up reports on where to find the best drug deals and shooting galleries. Hungry Mother's radio soliloquies simply crackle. His command of his own jacked-up lingo is stunning, and the images he creates become a litany for the decay of "Western civ."

So Tight & Shiny Productions have certainly given themselves an enormous challenge. Brett A. Snodgrass's beautifully decaying set is the perfect environment for this play: an enormous slab of concrete floats in the center of an empty black stage. Out of this concrete shoot two steel beams, perhaps 15 feet high, reaching futilely toward nothing (the ceiling of the space is probably 30 feet). On this postindustrial island Hungry Mother's studio is stranded, littered with old 45s, radio equipment, and various other debris.

The combination of clutter and clarity seems particularly apt. While the play is full of shrapnel from Overmyer's explosive imagination, each shard is precisely cut to be lethal. From one of Hungry Mother's news flashes: "Police today busted a waterfront distillery, arresting 27 adults. The distillery produces a wine brewed from the sores of children, which is quite popular locally and in the contiguous states, and is easily available without a prescription." And Snodgrass's choice of concrete and steel--the city's literal building blocks--underscores Overmyer's interest in society's crumbling underpinnings.

But unfortunately this clearly defined space throws the rather unfocused quality of director Tim Sullens's production into high relief. For the most part his cast seem to dredge their way through Overmyer's language, laboring over each sentence instead of letting each image springboard them to the next. This results not only in rather sluggish pacing but occasionally in incomprehensibility. The larger thoughts, those that carry a character through an entire paragraph or scene, are missing. It's like looking too closely at a newspaper photograph: the viewer can clearly see each of the individual dots, but no dot has more meaning than any other, and of course the greater picture is lost.

The cast certainly demonstrate great commitment--they're putting in a lot of hard work, but the work seems misdirected. In a play this stylized and language-oriented, an actor's diving into the emotions of his or her character is often not as important as finding the place where the language becomes true. It is this truth that will include the audience. By pulling in and dwelling on the play's dark emotional underpinnings, the cast does not allow the audience in.

In a sense this is a play about language. It's called Native Speech, after all. These characters should wield language as a martial artist wields nun chucks: in a flurry of dangerous activity, with a good deal of posturing to increase the perceived threat. By not grappling with the ways Overmyer's characters use language to do more than express their emotional states, Sullens's actors don't achieve the kind of immediacy and vitality the play needs to engage the audience.

THE GREAT AMERICAN CHEESE SANDWICH

Close Call Theatre
at Sheffield's School Street Cafe

The Great American Cheese Sandwich is a rather insubstantial family satire by Burton Cohen given a gung-ho production by Close Call Theatre. This one-act presents the "all-American" family: Father (Michael Kingston) the breadwinner, Mother (Kathleen Salois) the distraught homemaker, son Tom (Ray Brazaski) the high school football star, and daughter Betsy (Susan Gaspar) the pretty young thing. However, a few things in this family are slightly off kilter. Betsy runs some kind of outlaw ring in China and is pregnant, and Tom wears a dress and is having an affair with his coach. Mother and Father remain blissfully unaware of these curiosities.

The problem is that Cohen's play is fundamentally mean-spirited. The family is painted as a bunch of redneck hick idiots, complete with thick Ozark twangs and dopey sayings like "He wanted out more than a hen in a hole full of foxes." Mother and Father are indicted for their inability to see reality, and Betsy and Tom are one-dimensional cartoons. As a result the play simply can't move forward; without any vulnerability or recognizable humanity, the characters can't grow or change. And when the mysterious photographer Mr. Williams (Patrick Clayberg) shows up to take Mother's picture as the winner of the state fair's chili contest--even though the contest hasn't been held yet--the play degenerates into nonsense.

Close Call puts up a valiant fight, tearing into this script with endless enthusiasm; under JoAnn DeAngelo's direction, each of the characters becomes an outrageously huge cartoon. This approach certainly adds a lot of fire to an otherwise inert play, but the energy remains virtually unchanged throughout the hour-long production; it flirts dangerously with becoming an extended Hee Haw sketch. This cast would do better to explore moments of deadpan humor to balance their otherwise frantic performances.

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