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Washington DC by Tracy Lyon

The Race of the Ark Tattoo

If you go to The Race of the Ark Tattoo expecting a traditional theater experience, you are in for a surprise. This Obie Award winning piece is being billed by the Studio Theatre as "a flea market and a performance." Surely, it can't be an authentic flea market, can it? Could it be that some enterprising person would take that American mecca of castoff appliances and old 45s and turn it into art? The answer is yes, and writer W. David Hancock does it with intelligence, humor and, at times, a touch of melancholy.

It is clear from the moment one walks through the doors of the Studio Theatre that the audience is in store for something different. While still in the lobby, audience members are presented with a map that will guide them to the flea market. The flea market is housed in a space a little over a block away. Upon entering, one encounters tables and walls filled with the usual flea market fare such as old board games, a coffee pot, pieces of tile, and even a vintage Partridge Family album. The "customers" are encouraged to bring any questions to the proprietor, P. Foster, who is played by Matthew Maher. One soon finds another surprise. Not only is Foster answering questions but he also is bargaining with the eager shoppers.

The Race of the Ark Tattoo
Matthew Maher as P. Foster
Once the audience takes their seats, it is revealed that the appropriately named Mr. Foster was a foster child. Life was hard for him, but he recalls the one bright spot in his bleak childhood - the time he spent with his foster father, Mr. Phinney, Jr. We soon learn that Mr. Foster is not here just to sell his wares. He has a story to tell. In fact, he has many stories to tell because there is an anecdote attached to each of the old dusty items on display. Some of these tales are true, and some are born from Mr. Phinney's fervent imagination. All are intriguing and touched with an underlying grief.

Hancock has cast the audience as supporting players in this production, and Maher plays off them expertly. Sporting a hollowed-out toy camper that he refers to as the "story ark", he walks through the flea market and fills it with a number of items. Next, Maher makes his way through the audience, asking for volunteers to pick something out of the weathered old toy. With each selection comes a story told in the voices of both Foster and Mr. Phinney.

The marriage of W. David Hancock's dialogue and Matthew Maher's acting results in a superb piece of work. W. David Hancock's intelligent writing provides Matthew Maher with the tools to deliver a riveting performance as the gregarious and occasionally forgetful P. Foster. His ability to both disarm and disturb is very effective. Maher is equally as commanding when portraying the inventive foster father. Additionally, Melanie Joseph's subtle direction is obviously constructed with the audience members in mind.

Be sure not to miss this entertaining flea market, as it has only a two-week run. The Race Of The Ark Tattoo may not be for everyone; the traditionally minded may be put off by the structure of this piece. Nonetheless, don't let the unusual setting or the audience participation become a barrier. After all, where else can one witness an excellent performance piece and buy a figurine for one dollar?

The Studio Theatre
The Race Of The Ark Tattoo
September 7 - 23, 2001
By W. David Hancock
Directed by Melanie Joseph
1333 P Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005
Ticket Information: (202)332-3300 or www.studiotheatre.org

Photo: Carol Prat


-- Tracy Lyon


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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