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A journal entry unread 

Jerome Oster's 90 in 90

It seems nearly as premature to write off fledgling playwright Jerome Oster as it does to greet him with a hearty "mission accomplished." His 90 in 90, produced by Burning Coal Theatre, closed last weekend at Kennedy Theatre; at this point in its life cycle, his story about an alcoholic's trajectory through the lives of an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, two women and their friends, seems more sketch than drama, more television than theater. Theater tends to focus on extremities, on life-changing or life-defining moments. Usually, the more fully it excavates and explores those moments, the better. Its genius involves capturing unique individuals at their quintessence, whatever it might be--their most engaged or most dissipated, their most hopeful or hopeless state. After evoking that quintessence, theater then examines how it changes (or doesn't) when a character's situation alters. In shorthand, theater gives us the truth of a life in a change.

A stage script is not a pilot episode. It doesn't have the luxury of fleshing things out better next week or next season. The only time we'll ever have with these people is this time, on stage. Whatever happens to them, happens now.

Finally, since theater attendance requires more commitment than simply turning on the tube, we tend to ask more of it than we do a TV show: deeper insights, a bigger lesson. Somehow it should count for more than even a good episode of CSI or Law and Order.

Of course, the moment one states such universals, successful exceptions immediately come to mind. Still, before Oster decides to take on some really fancy shooting, he's got some work left to do on the fundamentals.

We start off promisingly enough with a strong sense of place, situation--and icon, strangely enough. The playwright has gotten close enough to Joe, the central character, to let him speak directly to the audience, stop time, and introduce us to his life. Such as it is: Twenty days sober--not counting today--in self-directed rehab after losing his job, his wife and his kids, he's on the edge, unsure of himself, scared. Actor Kenny Gannon and director Carnessa Ottelin admirably bring these elements to the fore.

He's in his new hangout. It's a coffeehouse, a refuge from the bars, and one not coincidentally run by Richard, his sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous. But with his repeated insistence on distrusting oneself, is he reinforcing the weakness or the uphill climb? Is what's going on between the two therapy or manipulation? Is it support, or sabotage? Like many other surfaces here, this one is barely scratched. Fortunately, it awaits further exploration.

The icon's the red notebook. It sticks out, particularly when Joe frames it in mystery. Everyone does tend to have legal pads, papers, notebooks in coffeehouses like this. And, as Joe mentions, you do never know what they're writing in them: "Thesis? Love letter? Suicide note?"

But with a buildup like that, we're not so subconsciously looking for examples of each--in writing--from Joe before play's end. And it's not clear we--or the playwright--ever gets close enough for him to oblige.

Because as his condition deteriorates, the playwright pulls away from Joe--or vice versa. It's ironic that, just when he slips out on the women in his life, he does the same thing with the audience.

This disappearing act fundamentally removes the inside story of a falling man. We got a little close to him at the beginning. We'll get a little close to him at the end--in a narrative that leaves us doubting the witness.

But the middle of 90 in 90 is a lot like hugging a ghost. We're distracted and amused by sharpwitted, urbanite friends Mike and Linda (ably enacted by Jim Moscater and Leah Aizen), but we're left with surface impressions of Dana (Jenny Wales) and Michelle, girlfriends--and victims--one and two. What if the point of view shifted from Joe to one of them as things progressed--instead of lapsing into disuse?

If writing in that notebook is something of a lifeline for a man in heavy seas, why do we rarely, if ever, see inside it? There's so much potential suspense in the act of reading someone else's handwritten journal. How did we get it? Should we really be reading? What happens to the person when we turn the next page? Its comparative dismissal here seems an opportunity thrown away.

We have here the very robust beginnings of an interesting story, populated by interesting people in an interesting world. But repeatedly we're convinced that Oster still needs to get to know his characters a lot better. There's a lot more to this story than we're ever allowed to see. In this case, I'd wager that means there's a lot more than even the playwright knows.

Speaking of twice-told tales, Tiny Ninja Theater returned to Manbites Dog Theater at the beginning of December with a production of Macbeth . This time last year, Dov Weinstein made a big splash with a similar rendition of Romeo and Juliet . Enacted on a desk-top set (or was that a music stand?), Dov manipulated and provided all the different voices to his "cast," a cadre of tiny plastic dolls plucked from dime stores and 25-cent and 50-cent machines. By turns loopy, imaginative--and more than strangely faithful to the text--the show made a most effective case (even if the eyestrain left a corner-seated critic with a bit of a headache at the time).

But this Macbeth predates Romeo by three years as Weinstein's first production in this, um, genre. And frankly, it shows; even with its technical gimcracks (including magnets and a ruby pencil laser, which does something truly eerie when pointed at a plastic doll), Macbeth is clearly not as sophisticated as the work we saw last year.

Obviously, praise is due Weinstein's vocal work, particularly with the title character and his bloodied bride. And note with approval the oh-so-cheesy (but amusing and effective) "Birnam Wood to Dunsinane" effect, in which a host of ninjas hide behind a painted Japanese fan.

But the puppeteer, to our best memory, didn't have to gesture with his fingers last year in Romeo to point out which character was speaking. He does in Macbeth. These and other elements point to an artist who was still learning the rudiments of his own weird art form while creating the earlier work.

There's absolutely no shame in that, particularly when an art form is as original as this. But it is important for an artist to recognize when he's surpassed his earliest work. I'll suggest that Weinstein demonstrated he's done exactly that with last year's Romeo and Juliet. I look forward to seeing new work from him.

This one could have slid right by without notice, in the melee of the holiday season. It would be a shame if it did, since Cirque Dreams seems a likelier candidate than most of the traditional holiday shows to revive the precious childhood feelings of awe and wonder. A colorful European-style circus (like its similar-sounding competitor) combining music, magic, acrobatics, clowning, aerial choreography and much more, Cirque follows the journey of poor Ringabella the clown (Martin Lamberti) through the grandfather clock in his room into the world of his dreams. There he meets--and attempts to imitate--an international cast including Russian acrobats, Canadian trapeze artists and Mongolian contortionists. Words alone won't do this one justice; check out the video clip from their show, at www.cirqueproductions.com/video_flash2.htm. The show's Web site is right next door: www.cirqueproductions.com/cirquedreams.htm.

We close with two optimistic notes on the times ahead. For everyone who missed it the first time, Manbites Dog Theater will revive the smash political comedy of the fall, Nixon's Nixon , with the original local cast and director, Jan. 6-29.

The first time around our five-star review praised Derrick Ivey's work as "career-defining" in the role of Nixon and called the production "regional independent theater at its finest, in a work of rare conscience--and humor--combined." Tix will be on sale online when you read this for anyone still in last minute gift-giving mode at www.manbitesdogtheater.org.

And word has reached these ears that a dance community concerned about the issues we've raised in this space over the fall will convene in an open, public Triangle Dance Forum in January. Date and location are still to be announced, but if you're interested it's not too early to contact Bridget Kelly at bridget@choreocollective.org.

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