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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Take Me Out, How The Other Half Loves
and In The Mirror, A Media Satire


Mixed Blood's Take Me Out hits a homer

Richard Greenberg's power-hitting play Take Me Out, doesn't require you to be a baseball nut, although aficionados might get something extra from this funny and smart, 2003 Tony Award-winning script. I know zilch about the game, but I know this is good theater

Take Me Out confronts the gay taboo in America's holy grail of sport, baseball. Along the way, it looks at ego, celebrity, male friendship, racism, isolation, the double edge of being a do-gooder even the idealization of American democracy - and it's all achieved in Greenberg's 400-batting average shower of fresh, non-pc language.

Darren Lemming is the team's all-around baseball superstar, a man of mixed parentage. The play opens as he outs himself in a TV interview. He's cocky, has an impeccable reputation, and he enjoys his celebrity like a god. But he's unprepared for the atmosphere of resentment and suspicion his decision has on the media, fans and friendships. His decision has an impact on the intimacy of the locker room, and, finally, a fall-out on the playing field.

Director Stan Wojewodski's casting is spot-on, and he pulls vigorous performances from the 12 members of his all-male cast.

Kippy is Darren's team friend, a Yaley who could have been an academic. Kippy, a wizard with words, serves as narrator, and Sean Dooley finds just the right note of boyishness and ambivalence in this witty young man. As superstar Darren, Lindsay Smiling looks and acts the part; he's lean and beautiful, even as his arrogance slips into confusion and anger. Thuggy Shane Mungitt is the antithesis to Darren, and Zach Curtis fills him like a black hole; Mungitt is an ignorant bigot, but Curtis finds poignancy in his character. Edward Williams Jr. plays Mason Marzac. Darren's effervescent financial advisor. Mason is all bubble and eagerness in his attraction to Darren and his new enthusiasm for baseball, but director Wojewodski pushes that enthusiasm close to being over-the-top-in one scene of body-squirming delight.

It's a pity that playwright Greenberg leaves Raul Garcia and André Samples' two Spanish-speaking, Latino players as macho cut-outs, whom the audience reads through body language alone. He does better with Japanese pitcher Kawabata, played by Joseph Steven Yang. Like the Latinos, he's isolated by language, but he's allowed a poetic moment to reveal his lonely philosophy of the game. Ansa Akyea hits the right moralistic tone as Darren's friend, Davey.

Jeff Thomson's basic set becomes a locker room, complete with working showers; it also becomes a ball park, with a game in progress, and other venues by virtue of Reid Rejsa's sound design, Tom Mays' lighting and the audience's imagination. Caveat for the scrupulous: Take Me Out boasts plenty of full-frontal showering, but the cast seem so natural in their on-stage locker room that no one need feel embarrassment.

Whether you are a die-hard baseball fan or whether you fall into the category of baseball ignoramus, like me, Take Me Out will make you laugh and, maybe, set you thinking about the layers that separate our democracy.

Take Me Out April 6 May 8, 2005. Wednesdays - Fridays 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays 7:00 p.m. Matinees Sundays 2:00 p.m. Tickets $10 - $25. Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501, Fourth Street on West Bank, Minneapolis. Call 612-338-6131 or www.mixedblood.com.


The Jungle mines the fun in How The Other Half Loves with first-rate staging

The audience needs to keep its wits about itself in the Jungle Theater's clever and side-tickling staging of Sir Alan Ayckbourn's How The Other Half Loves, as place and time slip like invisible panes of glass against each other. Imagine two homes on one set, occupied by two couples at the same time in each others' space, each pair unaware of the other. Now imagine two dinner parties, one on a Thursday night, one on a Friday, both being enacted simultaneously at one table. Sound tricky to accomplish? Director Bain Boehlke and his sixsome of actors manage it with apparent ease and, for the audience, with delicious hilarity.

Ayckbourn invents original devices in his plays, things like an on-stage coin toss to determine the course of a play. In Other Half, it's this extraordinary use of space and time, as the playwright lifts the sheet on three dissatisfied couples whose lives become entangled when an adulterous pair finger an innocuous couple as alibis. Beneath all the fun lurks a darker side to Ayckbourn's humor, the casual harming of others to save oneself.

The play takes place over four days in 1968 Britain. Structurally, it starts slowly, and Boehlke allows the pace to linger perhaps too long before it gathers momentum for the superb dinner party scene at the close of the first act, a scene that alone is worth the purchase of a ticket.

Within the common space of Boehlke's artful set, furniture is specific to each household. Just one table in front-center serves both households, with a telephone at either end. The ceiling light combines two styles of fixtures; a throw on the couch defines which part belongs to the slobbish Phillips and which to the upper-class Fosters. The Featherstones are the hapless third couple, used as alibis.

Teresa and Bob Phillips are a childish, spiteful and lusty pair with a baby. Jennifer Blagen plays disenchanted Teresa with bright-eyed malice, and Nick O'Donnell matches as her raffish, philandering husband.

Boehlke took a chance on casting ample Buffy Sedlachek as Bob's late-middle-aged love interest, Fiona Foster, his boss's wife. The role might more obviously belong to a svelte sophisticate, but Sedlachek is a fine actor and she gets away with it. Her atypicality emphasizes the triviality of an affair that is escapism for him and boredom for her. Fiona is married to patrician Frank, an inept retired British army officer type whom she deceives but looks after dutifully. Fred Wagner plays bumbling Frank and convinces by resisting the temptation to overact.

Frank is Bob and accountant William Featherstone's boss. In Wade Vaughn's hands, prissy William is a controller who likes to fix things, in particular, his mousey little wife Mary, played by versatile Maggie Chestovich. I sensed Boehlke's over-direction in Chestovich's interpretation of Mary. Her curled-in body language works for socially terrified Mary, but the too jerky walk draws attention to itself and away from the humor of this sad creature being accused of having a bit of a bonk with laddish Bob.

Ayckbourn, a sort of Moliere of British middle-class mores, employs the tensions of class in his plays (class still pulls rank in Britain), and that raises problems for American productions. The Jungle makes a valiant effort at class-defining British accents but, except for the higher class Fosters, the lower-middle class accents are a slippery hodge-podge that fail to nail the Phillips' and Featherstone's class provenance. With class divisions ill-defined, a subtle chunk of social comment remains unrealized.

But there's much to celebrate in this production. Strong acting captures the chronic nature of these ongoing lives. Then there's a facility with Ayckbourn's witty language, Barry Browning's rainy sound design, Amelia Cheever's 1968 costuming and Boehlke's skillful stagecraft.

True to Ayckbourn style, Other Half devolves into massive misunderstanding and expertly-timed farce in the second act. And my goodness, it's fun to laugh.

How The Other Half Loves April 8 May 28, 2005. Tuesdays Thursdays and Sundays 7:30 p.m. Fridays -Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Matinees Sundays 2:00 p.m. Tickets $32 - $25. Jungle Theater, 2951, Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis. Call 612-822-7063 or www.jungle.com.


In The Mirror feels necessary and urgent at Pangea

Satire is a tricky beast to handle; it must bite but not preach. Pangea World Theater's uneven In The Mirror, A Media Satire, co-written by Meena Natarajan and the Pangea ensemble, takes time to warm up and sometimes flirts with didacticism. At other times, Pangea masters the form engagingly in a series of multi-media vignettes.

Mirror's subject feels important as American democracy drowses. A tense "Lub-dub, lub-dub" on a darkened set opens the piece. The heartbeat suggests the press of time, lub-dubbing with the immediacy of a recording made directly through a stethoscope. Pangea slaps a stethoscope on the chest of the media and the technology that supports it. Diagnosis: our media is sick, and that effects the body politic.

The opening feels under-paced as poet J. Otis Powell wanders on stage, collecting books to be thrown away. The problem of slow pacing recurs in scenes where a fashion model scans magazines with real-time video for too long and another scene in which performers are chronically stuck in massive traffic jams.

An imagined office scene, dehumanized by white noise, insistent telephones, and rapid figures scrolling up the large polythene screens that form a back drop to director Depankar Mukherjee's set, makes its point; and Katie Herron pitches the satire's most important question, "Who controls what we see?"

The question leads to a talky ream of statistics that tell how media outlets, particularly local outlets, have been consolidated since 1945, and corporate America shapes the news. Media consolidation and manipulation is real and worrying, but the preacher is up in his pulpit at this point.

Hold on, though. Steve Swere, with a businessman's tie around his bare neck, rationalizes US influence on the media and, in a nice bit of dramatic irony, "proves" that he is resistant to the consumer-driven media, even as the audience watches him get suckered by it. This is how Mirror works at its best.

Three FBI spies (Aamera Siddiqui, Heron and Powell) in raincoats pitch a money-making pilot to sell manufactured terrorist infiltration-scare videos to a TV station, using enemy combatants; best of all, enemy combatants require no acting fees. The most chilling post-Patriot Act vignette has the performers sleuthing around Alberto Panelli, snapping cell phone photos of him. At home, Panelli gets an anonymous phone call that blackmails him into giving information about an old friend. The voice knows every messy detail of Panelli's life.

The Reactionary News at 9:00 p.m. knocks warped news and shows a videotaped interview with an Iraqi in Fallujah. It is patently clear from the Iraqi's body language that the translator is interpreting what the news station wants to hear and not what the man is saying.

There's an affecting video of a young Palestinian man, speaking in the rhythms of poetry, questioning blind US support for Israel, and the term "Sharonian terrorism" is given an airing. A questioning Panelli seeks moral guidance on US positions in the confessional. At best he gets ambivalence, at worst, the finger.

Mirror still has some honing to be done, but I am grateful to see theater question our increasingly uncomfortable, post-911 world, and I give Natarajan and company full kudos in tackling the issue head on.

Under Mukherjee's direction, Mirror has much to recommend it, with its mix of able actors and videography by Darren Johnson. An extra touch that tickled me, the playbill is presented as "media" in the form of a tabloid newspaper.

In The Mirror, A Media Satire April 7 April 24, 2005. Thursdays -Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Matinees Sundays 2:00 p.m. Tickets $10 - $15. Pangea World Theater, The Waring Jones Theater, Playwrights' Center, 2301, East Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis. Call 612-203-1088, or www.pangeaworldtheater.org.


- Elizabeth Weir



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