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Regional Reviews

A Life in the Theatre at The Adobe and
Hot L Baltimore at the Desert Rose Theatre

A Life In the Theatre
Peter Kierst and Paul Hunton
Photo: Ossy Werner
Edith Oliver called David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre "a love letter to the theatre" in her New Yorker review of the October 1977 Off-Broadway production at Theatre de Lys, following its premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre that February. Mamet produced his first dozen plays in the 1970s, eight before A Life in the Theatre, including his famous Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974) and American Buffalo (1975) featuring his trademark disreputable male misogynists battling for top pecking order.

Adobe Director Jim Cady pays homage to his own nostalgia and love of theatre by setting the play in the 1960s, when he was a young actor learning the craft from older actors at Pasadena Playhouse in California. He proclaims, "I love everything about a person who shouts at the top of his lungs: 'I have been in the theatre for forty years—Ah, the theatre, yes. She is a mean mistress, she will take everything you've got and give you nothing in return.' That is the theatre of my youth. Mr. Mamet has given me the opportunity to relive it and I thank him for it."

The play portrays a taut generational conflict between two actors. The aging Robert is performed with such fragile tension by seasoned Albuquerque actor and UNM law professor Peter Shea Kierst that he often seems on the edge of exploding and shattering. In the end, Kierst's Robert visibly and verbally disintegrates like a mechanical toy wound so tight it's doomed to self-destruct.

Paul Hunton, known to audiences of stage and film, creates apprentice actor John with equal ferocity as a worthy opponent for his mentor. Hunton develops John from his adolescent hero worship of the older actor into an artist sharpening his skill and power through critical self-analysis while evolving inevitably into an egotist like his mentor.

The play opens backstage with Robert and John congratulating themselves on their opening night performances. While John gushes with ardor for theatre itself, Robert feeds off John's adulation. John lavishes praise on Robert but offers an invited critique, saying he seemed "brittle" in one scene. Robert pounces on him with instant fury and demands an explanation. John back-pedals when he realizes he's offended the older man. This volley introduces the tension that slowly builds throughout multiple short scenes until the power dynamic gradually reverses.

From his first speech Kierst captures Robert's pomposity with deep-throated theatrical proclamations about his life in theatre. His lethal furor toward his leading lady ("I tune her out.") brands him a typical Mamet misogynist. As counterpoint, Hunton's John wins the audience with what appears to be a genuine eagerness to learn and a puppyish delight that he's survived opening night jitters and can now feed his famished body with dinner.

In quick succession with skillful scene and costume changes, which make the crew part of the performance, we see the two actors interact on and off stage. Scenes at side-by-side dressing tables most palpably dramatize changes in power between the two men. In one, Robert compliments John for his make-up brushes in abbreviated lines shot like bullets and punctuated by menacing Pinteresque pauses in the rapid-fire dialogue known as "Mamet speak."

Robert muses about his life in the theatre but also life itself. "Ephemeras! It all goes by so quickly." He prattles on about the transience of the temporal arts until John explodes: "Will you shut up?" With grandiosity, the declining actor chides his young colleague for his "breach of etiquette," but the tide has turned. Robert's confidence and sanity quickly unravel in a parody of Lear-like catastrophe. Robert's posturing vanity and brutality toward other theatre colleagues leave little room for audience empathy or commiseration. Rather than rousing an Aristotelian catharsis, he becomes a pathetic washed-up former artist who's let his craft slip away and can't find his way to exit gracefully. In a self-aware moment he begs John, "You mustn't mock me. It's too easy."

Wardrobe malfunction creates the most hilarious scene in the play. The opening night audience burst into raucous laughter at Robert's meltdown when his zipper gets stuck just when the stage manager calls "Places." He jumps around in a panic and finally up on a chair where John tries to safety pin his fly. In the scene the actors are playing on stage, Robert sports the giant safety pin like a flag while trying unsuccessfully to camouflage his fly with his miss-buttoned suit coat. In the onstage play John's character accuses Robert's character of being the father of the baby his wife is carrying and pulls out a gun. Thus art and reality become ironically entwined.

Jim Cady accurately presents Mamet's antagonists jockeying for power, but he also celebrates the whole enterprise of stagecraft by bringing the backstage crew to life. Adrienne Cox plays the capable but often perturbed Stage Manager. Ludwig Puchmayer as the Electrician, Felicia Monk and Chloe Turner as Wardrobe Mistresses, Rick Hassi as Prop Man, and Bill Mohr as Stagehand demonstrate the smooth, synchronized skill of the theater workers behind what happens in front of the foot lights.

Behind the Adobe production the real production crew deserves praise for a brilliant set (Jim Cady and Bob Byers), costumes (Judi Buehler, Beverly Herring, and Barbara Bock), lighting (Zane Barker) and original music (Thomas DiMele).

A Life in the Theatre is being performed at The Adobe Theatre, 9813 4th Street, Albuquerque, through September 5, 2010, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm. To reserve tickets call (505) 898-9222. Tickets are $14 for general admission and $12 for students and seniors.

A Separate Peace
Travis Snow, Jamie Coates, Teddy Eggleston, Catalina, Rose Provan, and Edward Kupjack
Photo: Dagmar Garza

Desert Rose Theater in Albuquerque's North East heights is recapturing a nostalgic glimpse of mid '70s high spirits in Lanford Wilson's Hot L Baltimore with a crew of loyal actors. Not only did Hot L Baltimore win the Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Obie for its first production at the Circle Rep in New York in 1973, but it also spawned a short-lived TV sitcom produced by Norman Lear with the same title for thirteen episodes in 1975. Since Wilson is often celebrated as one of the founders of the off-off-Broadway theatre movement, it's appropriate that this famous early play should be revived in a local OOB-type theater.

By coincidence, Albuquerque currently has two other plays from the 1970s playing at diverse and geographically distant theatres: Woody Allen's God at Auxiliary Dog in Nob Hill and David Mamet's A Life in Theatre at the Adobe Theater on the far North West side.

Desert Rose has recently restored its store-front 50-seat performing space tucked in the corner of a strip mall and provides a supportive environment for experienced actors and beginners to create community and to promote appreciation of theater. With the help of dedicated volunteers, the small space seems to expand to accommodate large casts.

Dagmar Garza's realistic set reproduces the worn-out lobby of a once proud hotel built toward the end of the 19th century. At the time of the action it's just a month away from the wrecking ball. The play takes place in less than 24 hours on Memorial Day, 1972, when residents in what has become a "flophouse" receive their eviction notices. Wilson has characters making frequent entrances and exits and carrying on simultaneous overlapping conversations in order to create a lively "ship of fools" ambience and to win sympathy for the down-trodden, almost homeless, inmates.

Night shift desk clerk Bill (Calvin Beckwith) interacts warmly with the residents, whereas manager Mr. Katz (Scott Bing) and bookkeeper Mrs. Oxenham (Sherry Rabino Lewis) maintain chilly boundaries as an apparent defense against involvement in residents' lives. Wilson centers the action around three hookers with stereotypic hearts of gold: eager young Martha/Lilac Lavender (Jamie Coates), jaded wise-cracking April (Teddy Eggleston, reprising her role in Paula Vogel's The Oldest Profession performed a few years ago at Desert Rose), and naive but always bubbling Suzy (Catalina). Teddy Eggleston deserves special praise for the dazzling humor of the hookers' costumes.

The drama moves forward with interlocking conflicts. Paul (Travis Snow) has just served time for drugs and is searching for his grandfather, a former resident. Tough dyke Jackie (Elizabeth Bennett) and her feeble-minded brother Jamie ( Edward Kupjack) have schemes and scams to move them toward their vision of an American dream on the frontier in Utah. Two of the oldest endearing residents seem to be losing their grasp of present reality. Mr. Morse (Timothy Kupjack) perpetually complains and Millie (Rose Provan) sees ghosts.

Director Lou Ann Graham has returned to Albuquerque after a career in San Francisco theatre to direct challenging plays at Desert Rose. The Sunday matinee audience audibly enjoyed the performance, especially April's entrances in her spectacular get-ups.

The Desert Rose Theater, 6921 Montgomery Blvd. NE, Albuquerque, presents Lanford Wilson's Hot L Baltimore through August 29, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 4 pm. General admission is $12; seniors, students, and ATG members $10. For reservations call 505 881 0503.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Albuquerque area

-- Rosemary Keefe



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