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Feed

Also see Sharon's review of Speed the Plow

Feed
Paul Denniston, Andrea Lockhart
and Robert W. Arbogast

Jim Lunsford's world premiere play Feed is dangerously close to being really, really, gut-clenchingly good. Craig Siebels' set is a courtroom in a not-too-distant future - marble floor, plaster walls. And three chairs on a balcony above - where the tribunal will sit. It recalls all of those Twilight Zone episodes where some Everyman finds himself pleading his case in front of a cold, impersonal authority seated some impossible height above him. It speaks not only of power, but authoritarianism. This is a place where nothing good can happen to an individual.

The individual in this case is Sid, a young woman in jail clothes who has been arrested for kidnapping. This is because Sid has a young child in her care. Sid cannot possibly have a small child, because Sid - like everyone else in this society - has been sterilized, and she has not received government approval to procreate. Andrea Lockhart's Sid is always on the verge of tears, if not actually crying. Sid may alternate between raging insanely and politely pleading, but Lockhart is always conveying a woman who has been mistreated by the system and will do anything to get her daughter back.

As the single-act play unfolds, Sid is sent off for a painful and invasive medical exam, in which it is conclusively proven that the child is, in fact, hers. (Jim Lunsford's play has a few holes in it; why Sid's maternity cannot be determined by means of a DNA test - rather than an examination of her insides to see if she has actually given birth - is one of them.) But this brings a spate of new charges against her, as Sid had no right to reverse her sterilization and have a child without government approval. (Lunsford's script does explain why society has chosen to impose this rule, and he is to be commended for letting this explanation unfold naturally, rather than in a huge chunk of exposition.)

Just around the point you start to think Lunsford might be writing an allegory about abortion, the characters actually start talking about a "back-alley procreationist" who did the necessary surgery on Sid, which definitely reinforces the thought. And, while the analogy isn't anywhere near perfect, Feed neatly raises the argument that the debate should be solely about a woman's right to decide her reproductive fate, and not whether the result of any particular woman's choice is a child or not.

But this is not the only target of Feed. The title of the play has several meanings, one of which is a live television feed of the trial proceedings. It's very Max Headroom, but in the world of Feed, the trials aren't just concerned with justice, they're concerned with ratings. And if Sid has a prayer of winning her case, she'd do better to win over the viewing public, rather than concentrating on the judges - a pointed commentary on our own system's tendency to try people in the media.

To try to get a handle on what else Feed is about, one has to consider what it isn't about. The lead justice in Feed is not a tyrant; her rulings try to be fair to both sides and she sometimes aims for genuine compassion. Lunsford's play happens to take place in a courtroom, but it is not a Kafka-esque journey through an out-of-control judicial system; it's about the enforcement of a law that was enacted for the good of the populace, but which has brutal consequences for the individual.

The two characters in whose hands Sid's fate really rests are Keller, the prosecutor; and Cowboy, her appointed defense attorney. Keller has the smugness of someone who knows he's got the winning hand. Paul Denniston's Keller smiles and talks in a measured voice, almost mechanical in its placidity, while the content of his speech can be absolutely devastating. Cowboy is the defense attorney you want to have when you haven't a prayer; he's not so hot on procedure, but he genuinely cares and seems to have a trick up his sleeve when all looks lost. Robert W. Arbogast makes a very charismatic Cowboy, and both he and Denniston are extremely convincing with Lunsford's dialogue, particularly the ongoing sniping between the long-term adversaries.

The place where the play needs work is its ending. The show resolves itself with a speech made directly facing the audience (which can't help but come off as preachy) and a plot twist which not only is obviously telegraphed but also should have been anticipated by at least one of the characters who seems surprised by it. There's also some talk in there about how "being human" is "the spark of every sin" - a concept which doesn't really go that far in terms of a criminal trial (or goes too far), and doesn't really live up to the quality of the rest of the play. Feed is a play with something to say; it just has to make certain its message doesn't get lost in the static.

Feed continues at the NoHo Arts Center through March 11, 2007. For tickets and information, see www.thenohoartscenter.com.

The NoHo Arts Center present an Open At The Top production: Feed by Jim Lunsford. Scenic Design Craig Siebels; Lighting Design Luke Moyer; Costume Design David Matwijkow; Sound Design Madonna Cacciatore; Video Production Tony Mark; Press Representative David Elzer/DEMAND PR; Assistant Director & Production Stage Manager Kelli Tager. Director James J. Mellon.

Cast:
Keller - Paul Denniston
Cowboy - Robert W. Arbogast
Sid - Andrea Lockhart
Justice #1 - Janet Fontaine
Bailiff #1 - Daniel Rennick
Bailiff #2 - Antoinette Valente
Justice #2 - Mark Wyrick
Justice #3 - Michael Shapiro


Photo: Jason Mohler


- Sharon Perlmutter






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