Off Off Loop Theater Festival: The Letter/Next/Dog Stories/Red Tango/Coup | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Off Off Loop Theater Festival: The Letter/Next/Dog Stories/Red Tango/Coup


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Mina Sama-No Theatre Company


BDI Theater Company


Phoenix Theatre


Chicago Actors Ensemble


Zebra Crossing Theatre

Five plays in four hours--excluding intermissions--may seem like a hefty bite of theater for one evening, but Douglas Bragan has learned from last year's Off Off Loop Theater Festival. This year he's expanded the number of performance dates and reduced the number of plays per program, allowing more leisurely digestion of the various courses.

The earlier of the two Saturday-evening programs, labeled "War Stories, Dog Story," consists of Mina Sama-No Theatre Company's world-premiere production of The Letter, written and performed by Connie Munoz and Suzy Nakamura; BDI Theater Company's performance of Terrence McNally's 1969 antiwar farce Next; and Phoenix Theatre's production of Dog Stories, by the prolific Chicago playwright Keith Huff.

The Letter deals with two dissimilar daughters of a Japanese American woman who was interned in a prison camp during World War II--Kelly, a bookish, homebody premed student, and Lynn, a freewheeling, fun-loving artist. Both of them are waiting for their mother to come home from the hospital, where she is being treated for cancer. But they are also waiting for the reparation check to which their mother is entitled--a sum of money that could enable Kelly to go to graduate school but that Lynn thinks should be used to send their mother to visit her family in the old country.

On the surface The Letter could be seen as an Asian variation on Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun, with the primary question being how best to use the opportunity presented by a sudden windfall. But The Letter also addresses the question of how much responsibility children must assume for the suffering of their parents. Kelly speaks at great length of her mother's hardships and elects to stay close to her, chiding the more independent Lynn for being absorbed in her own affairs. Yet it is Kelly who covets the money and what it represents for her future, and Lynn who, though refusing to dwell upon a past she never knew, votes to spend the money unselfishly.

The question of filial duty and its limits is familiar to children of Holocaust victims, war refugees, and for that matter, parents raised during the Depression. Clearly there are no easy answers, but Munoz and Nakamura have written a thoughtful exploration of a problem too often ignored. Under the direction of Lawrence Mah, the two women manage to lend the proper conversational tone to the sometimes didactic dialogue, though they frequently speak too much to one another rather than their audience. (In defense of all the early-show performers, there was an unusual amount of extraneous noise in the Theatre Building, which rendered much of all three plays virtually inaudible.)

Terrence McNally's Next was conceived as a send-up of the inhumane indifference of the draft--the story tells of an overaged citizen called up for a medical examination by a doctor oblivious to his combat unreadiness--and it was quite popular among the members of a generation all too familiar with the bureaucratic bullying of the war machine. But the majority of theatergoers have lost the mindless adolescent anger necessary to understand why McNally's characters say the things they do. Furthermore, Next is an extremely awkward script: its first half is made up largely of standard impersonal-doctor/nervous-patient gags, and its second half is completely taken up with a long monologue in which the reluctant inductee, having been informed that he is unfit for military duty, tells us everything about himself and what he thinks is wrong with America before assuming the role of the doctor and calling in the next victim.

Whatever relevancy this may have for audiences in 1991--and I will admit that my perceptions may be clouded by recollections of the play in its original context--there's no denying that the performance delivered by George Lugg as the unfortunate draftee is spectacular. One of Chicago's finest character actors, Lugg manages to find a subtextual message somewhere in McNally's harangue and hold our attention to it. He also deserves some sort of valor award, in this season of beautiful naked bodies on every other stage, for not only stripping to the buff (though wrapping himself modestly in the flag) but also deliberately calling our attention to the middle-aged imperfections of his physique. This is a brave man.

Dog Stories is a series of vignettes satirizing the extraordinary affection many modern Americans harbor for their pets, as well as their attitudes toward children. There's also a gibe or two at daily-meditation self-help books. The central narrative involves Ira Cadwalader, a rich and naive young man who learns that his beloved hound is terminally ill and vows to grant its dying wish to visit Disneyland. On the long cab ride to California--no baggage-compartment traveling for this dog--they hear their driver and a roadhouse waitress who turns out to be the driver's ex-wife relate how a perfect dog and an imperfect baby broke up their marriage. Children are OK, Huff's play seems to be saying, but a good dog is truly one's best friend.

Theresa Carson, a member of the Kaleidoscope Children's Theatre Company, delivers a superb performance as the most lovable human puppy since Dexter Bullard's rambunctious canine in 1989's Castrating Eugene. Just as lovable is Barry Saltzman as the silent and devoted Ira. Gary Brichetto does a nice Peter Boyle-style turn as Doobey, the cab driver, and Judy Goldschmidt does nicely as Fiona, Doobey's ex-wife, though much of her dialogue is lost in her heavy accent.

The late Saturday-evening program, titled "Pride and Prejudice," includes the Chicago Actors Ensemble's abbreviated version of the rock opera Red Tango and Coup, written by the pseudonymous Jane Martin and performed by Zebra Crossing Theatre.

Red Tango takes Woyzeck--Georg Buchner's 1836 tale of a common man's search for meaning through a series of mystical revelations--and transports it to present-day Soweto. The parallel is surprisingly accurate--just as Buchner's Germany in the period following the French Revolution was a universe in disorder, South Africa is now a society in a state of swift and often violent change. Red Tango is not simply European romanticism with a tan, however. Conceived by Hilary MacAustin and Rick Helwig, who also directs, and with a score by Tom Yore that blends classical and popular forms (what Lloyd Webber and Sondheim could still be doing if they hadn't got lazy) with African and Caribbean rhythms, this is a whole new dramatic oeuvre. The cast (Jennifer Ford, Eva D., David K. Smith, and David Thibodeaux) and the orchestra (Douglas Brush and Mark Glatt on percussion, Alexis Meyers on bass, and Yore on lead guitar) also help make Red Tango one of the most original and entertaining works in this year's festival. There's good reason to anticipate its full-length revival in June.

A meal as rich as Red Tango requires a light following course, and Zebra Crossing cooks up the perfect dessert with Coup, a satirical look at race relations in the deep south. The story centers on the annual Fourth of July Gone With the Wind pageant in Brine, Alabama--a celebration that promises to be different, not only because the Yankee-educated Essie attempts to costume herself as a black slave, but because she successfully recruits Brine's new dentist to play the coveted role of Rhett Butler.

I don't know the identity of "Jane Martin," but if dialogue is any indication, he/she has spent a large portion of time listening to the English language south of the Mason-Dixon line. "This will plumb turn his blood to Dr. Pepper!" says one character of her hotheaded husband. Another female declares a young man to be "so sexy you could lose your virginity just looking at him!" Beulah, "the last black domestic servant in the south," sees Essie done up in a turban and blackface and snaps at her, "You get that shoe polish off your face or I'll scrub it with a cheese grater and dry it off with a fence picket." You won't hear language like that in Massachusetts.

The entire cast deliver high-spirited and irreverent performances, mugging and winking at the audience with cheerful audacity. Janice Booker all but steals the show as the plainspoken Beulah, but Mara Martin as the antebellum dowager Miz Zifty, E. Millard Jones as the fluttery Don Savanah, and Lee Roy Rogers as the twittery Brenda Lee also do fine work.

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