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Political satire: Short form and long 

A little editing goes a long way

The political humor was so caustic, so on target and so condensed in Leggett Theater Thursday night. But then Bright Eyes' incendiary "Protest Song" ended during the intermission of Burning Coal's Accidental Death of an Dnarchist at Peace College, and we reluctantly returned to the same predicament we'd left in act one. Actually, I'm tempted here to focus instead on Colin Oberst's performance of that song during the three brilliant minutes of political theater that closed NBC's Tonight Show Monday night, May 2. The inclination's even greater since the event--passing strange--drew not a blip in response from the conventional media or the usual gang of reactionary political commentators.

Maybe they all missed it, as I did myself when it originally aired. (If you did too, a video clip's at www.prefixmag.com/Bright_Eyes_(Leno)(05.02.05)_(high).php.) We go to bed early out here, and for whatever reason, Leno just somehow doesn't come to mind when it's time to check in with the counterculture.

But from the stage of Burbank's Studio 3, Oberst shared these thoughts in halting syncopation, with over 5 million Americans:

When the president ... talks to God/Do they drink near beer and go play golf/While they pick which countries to invade/Which Muslim souls still can be saved?/I guess God just calls a spade a spade/When the president talks to God.

Holy smokes.

One of the coolest stringbean hicks I'd seen in days was calling ol' Dub out on network television. And he wasn't being terribly polite about it all. In less time than it takes to dress a dead goose, Bright Eyes succinctly tagged 43 with less than Christian opportunism, oil price increases, truly ugly racial politics and voter fraud, along with a few other high crimes and misdemeanors, since there was time left over.

Which actually might have been the most potent clue Oberst could have given the folks here in Raleigh trying to protest politics through satire. If he was unavailable, would that somebody else had. As it stands, parties who have yet to come forward have turned Simon Nye's adaptation of Nobel laureate Dario Fo's 1970 farce into a work pointlessly saddled down with a mass of distracting local landmarks, cultural references and cutesy name checks. As a result, the damn thing can't stop winking to itself or us long enough to get much useful work done, which is a particular shame given the kilocalories that regional newcomer Philip Mutz poured into keeping this sinking ship afloat.

As a certified (but never less than charming) maniac from--where else?--Dorothea Dix, his character's strange affliction, "acting mania," has gained the attention of the local police. This is because he's shared it with all passersby, impersonating doctors, psychiatrists and clergy, for fun and profit, at the drop of a hat.

On a routine visit to police headquarters (dressed in a Spiderman suit and mask), the maniac learns that a district judge is about to reopen an investigation into an anarchist's death that occurred while the subject was in police custody. Say presto-chango and the game's afoot. The maniac impersonates the judge to get corrupt officers and administrators to admit their complicity in the deed.

But this attempt to Americanize commedia dell'arte runs into difficulties far too soon.

From his earliest scenes, Mutz tries to combine the manic edge of Martin Short with the quick-change sensibilities of Robin Williams--or, come to think of it, Bugs Bunny. But this helium-based character far too rarely develops enough gravitas to land one solid punch with any force to any of the dozens of subjects he brings up and just as instantly dismisses.

That cavalcade apparently attempts to jam in every single cultural, political and manmade disaster since 1970, for reasons that are never made clear.

On stage, George Jack makes an appealing patsy as unlucky supervisor Bertozzo, and Kevin Ferguson ups the ante later as a detective who serves as the maniac's straight man. A stoic Ian Finley impersonates keyboardist Ron Mael as a series of officers at the bottom of the municipal food chain.

But then, in a baffling development, Lynne Marie Guglielmi plumbs the lower common denominators as Marla Miffed, a journalistic sexpot apparently--but inexplicably--based upon News & Observer theater critic Orla Swift. The thinnest thread of a plot line, in which a critic investigates police brutality, is apparently floated to make a single observation later on: that when it comes to catharsis, critics are the "overindulged chief masseuses" of the public conscience.

Well, thanks for the thought, which is actually worth serious consideration.

I simply wish it had been made in a production more fundamentally coherent than this.

For in trying to take on every single last discontent and injustice over the past 35 years, this exasperating, punch-drunk mess swings and misses at nearly every target it lays eyes on. Introducing local references only muddies things up further: Instead of wondering what Fo is protesting, we're preoccupied with Burning Coal's possible agenda against a choir of regional celebrities, institutions and historical events.

The resulting case of double-vision clarifies little. If the darned thing just stopped winking long enough, a lot of the blurredness might subside. As things are, a three-minute song at intermission does what this show attempts to do, a lot better, and in a fraction of the time.

Two strong recommendations for the weekend ahead--neither of which was probably already on your radar. The first involves inDecision Theatre , an emerging troupe of improvisationalists whose brand of humor at its best takes a page from early Norman Lear and reminds us of an oft-forgotten principle: the stronger the characters, the stronger the comedy. The highlight from their most recent night at Common Ground Theater, that funky little black box out Hillsborough Road, was a long-form piece called "Couples Therapy." In it, a sextet took an improbable list of individual frailties (from messiness to erectile dysfunction) from the audience and slowly crafted them, through a series of incremental scenes, into a series of colliding human relationships. Out of them we learned this much: The more actors invest in characters and situations, the more we do as well. What could have remained merely physical humor became the trigger for a loss of intimacy between a longsuffering Deborah Klinger and Lewis Caviness. Andi Sattinger's total household disorganization first threatened Philip Semanchuk before before opening him up to the creative possibilities of truly random access. Oliver Vest's fussy, proud--but sexually disadvantaged--middle-aged man was a character study (and a perfect foil) to Lisa Klein's earthier hairdresser.

With each of these, at first we laughed. Then we actually started caring, as each twosome attempted to negotiate the issues that were getting in the way of their relationships.

That's what we call good acting--and better than usual comedy. The clincher: at $4 a pop these tix are a steal. Catch them Saturday night at Common Ground, but call 698-3870 for reservations.

The following day, Tamara Kissane and Cheryl Chamblee (last seen in On the March to the Sea, at Duke) drag us into the workshop for a first glimpse at a new full-length work in progress for both hands theatre company . "It's how we give scripts we're working on some air, and raise funds at the same time," Chamblee chuckled, describing right now this minute , a combination of speculative and repertoire pieces featuring Kevin Poole, Beth Popelka, Nicole Quenelle and Lance Waycaster. Tickets are $10 for two shows only, at unconventional hours--a Sunday matinee at 3 p.m. and a Monday night gig at 7:30--but given the blowout this crew had last time 'round at Manbites Dog Theater, reservations might not be a bad idea: 682-3343.

Reviews
***Disney's Beauty and the Beast , N.C. Theatre--This, um, low-carb approach to the Broadway blockbuster cut the wrong things from the professional version, pruning out much of the imaginative set design and advanced costumery while leaving a seriously bloated book and score untouched. The clearest indication something was amiss? The kids started squirming--early. By the end of a first act whose repeats and reprises ran a good 20 minutes too long, they weren't the only ones. While things improved in the second act, getting there at times was less than half the fun.

Howard Ashman and Tim Rice's lyrics veered from the sharp and satirical ("Gaston") to barely boilerplate ("No Matter What"). There were no surprises with local heroes Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell in the title roles: both strong of voice and adequately charismatic. Our nod for the best musical moment of the night: Kennedy's solo in an affecting "Home."

In supporting roles, talented physical comedian Bryce Bermingham shone as second-banana Lefou and Gregg Goodbrod embodied the beef-brained Gaston, particularly under Michele Lynch's sardonic choreography. Meanwhile, Rob Lorey's toothsome Lumiere presided over an enchanted castle ably populated by Tim Maculan's Cogsworth and Jeanne Lehman's Mrs. Potts, with diverting cameos by animated doormat Robbie Roby and Jessica Leigh Brown's Babette. (Closed May 8.)

*** The Miss Firecracker Contest , Temple Theatre--Think Beth Henley's script about the foibles surrounding a small-town beauty contest is exaggerated? Remind me to tell y'all about the Miss Reidsville Pageant sometime. Until then, the quirky performances in the leads and in key supporting roles kept things nicely off-center, and made up for some of the script's shortcomings, including the contest itself, which takes place entirely off-stage. Estelle Collins gave our would-be contestant a Cindy Lauperesque twist, while Cassandra Vallery did the vapid Veronica Lake bit as indecisive former beauty queen Elaine. Morgan Carson's sibling Delmount aspired to delinquency and bad street poetry, an apparently irresistible combination to Kendall Rileigh's delightfully goony seamstress wizard Popeye Jackson. (Closed May 8.)

**Quilters , Deep Dish Theater--Unfailingly earnest but theatrically inert, a work that's more of a historical review than a play sacrifices depth for breadth in its survey of how prairie women of the 1800s encoded life experiences into folk designs on hand-stitched comforters. When playwright Molly Newman and composer Barbara Damashek permit a cast of strong actors to lock long enough onto specific scenes or situations, we're impressed by these women's strength and amused by their cunning. But, alas, since that rarely happens, we predominantly see cameos, not characters, in a sometimes hokey cavalcade recalling high school assembly presentations of yesteryear. (Through May 21. 968-1515.)

E-mail Byron Woods at byron@indyweek.com.

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