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Two to Watch

Prop Thtr's New Play festival makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity.

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TEATIME AT GOLGOTHA PROP THTR

RAILROAD BACKWARD PROP THTR

Teatime at Golgotha and Railroad Backward

WHEN Through 8/11: Railroad Thu 8 PM, Teatime Fri-Sat 7 PM

WHERE Prop Thtr, 3502-4 N. Elston

PRICE $15

INFO 773-539-7838

Compared to the Rhinoceros Theater Festival, which offers some 50 full stagings of new scripts at a time, Prop Thtr's New Play festival is small potatoes. This year there are just two full productions, plus six two-time workshop stagings and seven one-time readings--it barely seems to qualify as a "festival" at all.

But unlike the plays in the Rhino fest, which are often never seen again, the works in the New Play festival sometimes move on to productions in other cities. Now in its tenth year, Prop's fest is tied in to the National New Play Network, which feeds scripts to its 20 member theaters around the country. And both full productions this year--Mark Chrisler's intelligent, thrilling Teatime at Golgotha and Kestutis Nakas's Railroad Backward--are rewarding, bringing history, myth, and hallucination into fruitful collision.

Chrisler, who's associate artistic director at Prop, presents a heady, wittily self-effacing hour-long fantasy that charms even as it ridicules its own grandiosity. Chrisler partitions the stage into three playing areas, each populated by three characters from a different historical period: Roman soldiers Longinus, Quintus, and Cabral waiting for Christ to die (offstage); 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe, his assistant Johannes Kepler, and Brahe's clairvoyant dwarf servant, Jebb; and present-day nobodies Nicholas, Michael, and Ianthe. For the first 15 minutes or so, as Chrisler jumps from century to century, the three scenarios seem to share nothing except droll absurdity as crises loom. Longinus, the nebbishy philosopher of his group, hopes his friends can help him find a way to make the mind-numbing drudgery of his job--eviscerating recently crucified Jews--less boring. Close to death, Tycho drunkenly forces Kepler to listen to Jebb recite Tycho's recent dreams in exhausting detail. And Nicholas is so certain he'd make a better boyfriend for Ianthe than Michael that he might just shoot one or both of them. Or himself.

Gradually the worlds begin to intersect, as the same phrase that ends a scene in one era starts the next in another. It's a superficial, cliched connecting device that slowly gives way to more nuanced interweavings of language, such as key images--a starry sky, a stalled epiphany, imminent death. It becomes apparent that all the characters are stuck in emotionally charged ruts, waiting for the hand of fate to intervene and provide guidance. But they get nothing from the indifferent universe--from the planets whose motions Tycho charted and Kepler organized into a cosmological system that was not centered on the earth and human events.

The most striking moment of Teatime at Golgotha comes when the three playing areas are lit simultaneously for the first time and all the characters, stupefied, see one another. A cheap proxy for the longed-for hand of fate, this moment would seemingly provide enlightenment, disrupting each world's insular mania. But the lights quickly return to their normal pattern of illuminating one scene at a time, and the characters shrug off the moment of insight and return to their narrow concerns. Ultimately it seems that everyone commits Tycho's great mistake: putting himself, in the form of the earth, at the center of the known universe. Only Kepler, who inherits Tycho's meticulous and well-guarded star charts, deduces the truth: human events are meaningless. But access to the charts, and wisdom, comes at the expense of Kepler's scruples.

The cool humor and fantastical musings of Teatime at Golgotha make its deeply cynical worldview, revealed in violent deaths and betrayal near the end, a surprise. Chrisler's lost souls are pitiful buffoons rather than tragic failures, children of Chekhov rather than O'Neill. Using great theatrical economy--the play is rhetorically precise, and all the details are telling--Chrisler needs only an hour to develop his themes. But rather than pin his ideas down at the end, he lets them linger evocatively.

Director Kevlyn Hayes--piloting this debut production for Found Objects Theatre, in conjunction with Prop--keeps Chrisler's complex vision in sharp focus. For the most part his nine cast members navigate the dense, circuitous text with exacting yet effortless grace. Only Pete Blatchford as Jebb struggled on opening night, making his two especially elliptical but critically important dream monologues nearly opaque.

Playwright Kestutis Nakas inclines toward the elliptical too in Railroad Backward, an hour-long trip into the dark recesses of Illinois history. An everyman named Weevil, fed up with the annoyances of contemporary urban life both imagined (dirty bombs) and incidental (ringing cell phones), travels with a hilariously vengeful embalmed Abraham Lincoln back to the good old days of frontier greed, ruthlessness, and mayhem. Guided by a hapless narrator, overseen by a guitar-toting woman who calls herself the Panther, they meet John Hart Crenshaw, allegedly part of the reverse Underground Railroad, which captured freed slaves and smuggled them south for profit. After an action-movie-style fistfight, they travel further back in time and fall into the clutches of three historical figures: Revolutionary War veteran-cum-river-pirate Samuel Mason and the bloodthirsty Harp brothers, known as America's first serial killers. Holed up in a cave on the Illinois shore of the Ohio River, the outlaws murder the infant Lincoln in his cradle. Since the grown-but-dead Lincoln is standing before them, nobody in the scene can make any sense of this--and neither can the viewer.

Nakas combines his characteristic poor-theater aesthetic--no props, minimal costumes, a few chairs as set pieces--with self-consciously hokey school-pageant acting to create a playful but puzzling journey that often wanders too far from a discernible path. Yet his handful of well-placed references to Vietnam and Iraq do create a sense of the United States' robust history of rugged individualism--read "ruthless profiteering." Like Chrisler, Nakas finds contemporary resonance in remote historical corners.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Teatime at Golgatha.

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