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Optic Nerve

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OPTIC NERVE, Inertia Ensemble, at the Blue Rider Theatre. For whatever reason, alternative comic books have an edgy, clear-eyed view of contemporary American life all but missing from TV, the movies, and theater. At least Hollywood has the excuse that it's controlled by a pack of vidiots--producers, directors, writers, and ad-agency drones who know more about TV-land and its imaginary suburb LA than they do about real life. But only inertia, ignorance, and a pathological love of the past keeps American theaters from turning out adaptations of such great comic books as Jessica Abel's Artbabe, Ivan Brunetti's Schizo, and Dan Clowes's "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron" in Eightball.

Which is why the Milwaukee-based Inertia Ensemble should be applauded for its stage version of stories from Adrian Tomine's brilliant, sensitive, sweetly laconic Optic Nerve, even though I don't think the adaptation, by artistic director Stephanie McCanles, is entirely successful. Most of his quietly comic, Carver-esque tales of anomie and Gen-X angst translate nicely to the stage, especially when the performance space is as intimate as the Blue Rider and the ensemble is as comically adept and capable of playing the quieter moments as this one. (Kathleen Wittman and Beth Armatoski stand out as a shy girlfriend reluctant to indulge in phone sex and as a good-hearted but wrongheaded woman who tries in vain to transform an old lover into a friend.) But McCanles blunts the power of Tomine's intense little tales by cutting many of them up and recombining them into a whole. Like Robert Altman's cinematic desecration of Raymond Carver's short stories Short Cuts, it's not equal to the sum of its parts.

--Jack Helbig

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