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The Killing/Transforming Sexton

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THE KILLING

Center Theater Studio

Big-city lawyer Marv Cohen arrives with lofty ideals when he's called in to advise Suzette Wilson, the attorney for a midwestern Indian reservation, on initiating an on-site gambling casino. Soon afterward he meets the laconic chief, Joe Longa, and his teenage son, Bosco--badly brain-damaged as a result of water polluted by toxic waste mislabeled as fertilizer. These new acquaintances strengthen Cohen's resolve to help the people he regards as his spiritual kin ("A Jew must be sensitive to the sufferings of oppressed people . . . we, too, have suffered extermination"). And though the self-styled savior is reluctant to admit it, he also hopes to vindicate himself after a recent scandal that could permanently cripple his career. But he grows suspicious (and maybe a bit jealous) when Wilson insists on bringing in someone else to negotiate outside financing--a small-time mafioso named Angelo Carpoli, likewise intent on establishing himself as a Good Guy. Carpoli's proposal that a Japanese vice lord with international holdings be invited to invest launches Cohen on a one-man mission to rescue the naive Indians from their own folly--only to learn that he's been a pawn in an elaborate personal vendetta masterminded by Native Americans quite capable of taking care of themselves.

Stephen P. Daly's The Killing starts with the same ingredients as Gary Leon Hill's Food From Trash (currently playing at American Blues Theatre)--environmental mismanagement, proud minority-group victims, crippled minority-group children, ruthless Anglo bosses, selfless Anglo crusaders. But while Hill's play is little more than a predictable polemic, Daly's is a clever little puzzle in which he deliberately manipulates ethnic stereotypes to trick the audience as cleanly and thoroughly as he tricks Cohen, Carpoli, and even Mr. Yoshio, the foreign broker. (Only Hank, the black Bureau of Indian Affairs officer, remains doggedly indifferent to the intrigue and thus escapes with his job and self-image intact.) Early in the play, when Wilson snaps, "It irks me when people think we can't manage our own affairs," it never occurs to Cohen, who talks brotherhood while patronizing Wilson and pursuing control of the project, or to Carpoli, who buys lavish presents for Bosco while calculating the graft he can skim off, that she's giving them a warning. In the end, one self-deluding exploiter loses his life, and the rest have been humbled for their gullibility and prejudice.

Daly's tightly written script is superbly interpreted under the direction of Center Theater artistic director Dan LaMorte. Ensemble members Ed Bevan as Cohen and Patrick McCartney as Carpoli play their familiar characters with such straight-faced sincerity that we're completely taken in, as we are by the sweet-faced dissembling of Robin Witt's Wilson. Performance poet E. Donald Two-Rivers, making his theatrical debut in the role of Longa, is a quiet presence, and Doug Friedman (who looks remarkably like Two-Rivers) makes a suitably angelic Bosco. Lawrence L. Thomas and Marc J. Rita salvage what dignity they can from the characters of Hank and Yoshio.

The Killing is a small, hard gem of a play. Look for this one to receive substantial attention once the flurry of big-budget, high-hype shows is over.

TRANSFORMING SEXTON

Center Theater

"I am the only actor," said the late Anne Sexton, neatly summarizing the subjectivism of all poets. As the first speech in Karen L. Erickson's Transforming Sexton, however, it also sets forth an insurmountable problem when attempting to perform poetry alongside other art forms: the minute the poet ceases to be the only actor, the effect of the poetry is diluted. Virtually any sensory stimulus, aural or visual, will take precedence over the intellectual, and therefore less immediate, spoken or written word. Sure enough, mere seconds after the character called Searcher utters her declaration of independence, four other figures peek indignantly from behind the scenery, giving the lie to her illusion of solitude and then gamboling onstage to distract us from her words.

Granted, the "distractions" are first-rate--intricate, exquisite dances by Nina Shineflug and a variety of solid pop songs by Joe Cerqua. (But the story theater-style staging is overly familiar.) The five cast members play their archetypal characters with protean grace and agility, and the dreamscape set and costumes are perfectly chosen. But however the excellent Center production may elaborate upon Sexton's sly humor and extravagant sensuality ("We rose up like wheat / Acre after acre of gold / And we harvested / We harvested") with its smoky ballads, white-gowned dancing, and ribald physical comedy, nothing can match the moments when Searcher (played by the redoubtable JoAnn Carney) stands alone, with her weathered beauty and dignity, and just talks, allowing us to absorb directly the unadulterated power of Sexton's astonishing imagery.

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