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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Fine acting distinguishes two Minneapolis productions

Fifty Foot Penguin's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof seethes with repressed feelings

Excellent theater requires not an expensive production, but spot-on casting, first-class acting, a powerful script and clear direction. All are present in Fifty Foot Penguin Theatre's red-hot production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams.

The language in Williams' Cat sizzles with poetry, wit and insight, and his characters scratch and spit as they claw for position in Big Daddy's dysfunctional family. Set on an immense Mississippi Delta plantation in the early '50s, the family gathers for Big Daddy's 65th birthday. Although he and his wife do not yet know it, the old man is dying of cancer, which sets in motion a spiral of avarice, manipulation, deceit and revelation among his would-be heirs.

Director Zach Curtis has assembled a cast who physically match Williams' characters and, my, but they can act.

The sexily feline Stacia Rice is custom-made to be Maggie, a fine-boned Southern beauty who is both brittle and resilient. Denied sex by her alcoholic and sexually ambiguous husband Brick, childless Maggie vies to out-maneuver her ambitious sister-in-law, who is a "monster of fertility." In a superbly nuanced performance, Rice lives and breathes Maggie's anger, hurt and lust to inherit. Steve Sweere as Brick, Big Daddy's favorite son, should have the beauty of an Adonis, but Sweere handles the detached Brick with subtlety. His Brick is a man dulled by alcohol, yet aware of the surrounding corruption. When Brick defends a pure relationship with an old school friend to his domineering father, the fierce passion Sweere gives Brick's words suggests sublimated homosexuality.

Bob Malos, a massive oak of a man, is made to be Big Daddy. He packs the stage with cruel humor, vulgar coarseness and dread of homosexuality in Brick. In the ample shape of Karen Weise-Thompson, Big Mama is big indeed, and brassy, as she dominates her children and whines for affection from Big Daddy. Brian Columbus plays Gooper, the family's older son, as a conniving nerd, and Ellen Apel plays his wife, Mae, as conventional and grasping. Young Frank Thompson has a lovely vignette role as one of Mae's snotty "no-neck" children.

Curtis directs Cat as a fine conductor directs an orchestra, giving some moments lyrical breadth, and playing others pianissimo in order to add dramatic color to moments of true crescendo. Although lean, John Gavin Dwyer's set of Brick and Maggie's bedroom sketches in the grandeur of a plantation mansion, and Emily Heaney's costumes and Marina Vargas' hairdos define the period. Jennifer Heaney's bright lighting design creates an off-stage firework display and a sense of Delta heat.

With Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Fifty Foot Penguin's small company proves that excellent theater is not necessarily expensively produced theater.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof December 6 - 21. Thursdays-Mondays, Dec. 12-16. Thursdays-Saturdays, Dec. 19-21. @ 7:30 p. m. Cedar Riverside People's Center, 425, 20th Avenue, Minneapolis. $15. Call 612-381-1110.

Unconventional casting brings home a winner in The Boys Next Door

It's a risk to put on a play about the mentally handicapped and doubly so to have mentally handicapped actors star in the show, but Mixed Blood and Interact Theatres' unusual production of Tom Griffin's 1986 play The Boys Next Door reaps huge dividends from blending an ensemble of mentally challenged and professional actors. This laugh-out-loud comedy hits the funny-bone fair and square and offers a loving and painful glimpse into the lives of four handicapped men living in a group home, and their supervisor.

Both theater companies have special missions that marry nicely in this production. Mixed Blood promotes cultural pluralism, and Interact develops the talents of disabled artists.

Interact's Eric Wheeler plays overweight Norman, who has Down Syndrome, with scene-stealing comic flair. Norman has a powerful attachment to donuts and a ring of keys, and is sweet on Sheila, another group home resident. Wheeler, who has Down Syndrome himself, brings poise and a palpable sense of fun to the demanding role of Norman.

In another acting coup de grace, Interact's Peter Goldberg hurls himself into the role of Arnold, a character given to sudden obsessions and borderline paranoia. Vulnerable Arnold dramatizes every word he utters, every gesture he makes, and Goldberg nails the off-kilter mania of Arnold's manic depression. Ana Maria Koutsostamatis, also of Interact, fills the role of Sheila with gentle charm.

These actors belong on stage because they are talented. They heft equal weight with the professional actors, and they invest their characters with a dignity and humanity that deepens the reach of Griffin's play.

On opening night, Mixed Blood's Warren C. Bowles, who also directs Boysc stepped into the role of Lucien, a lovable man who has the mental ability of a five-year-old. Bowles touchingly captures the confusion and anxiety of a grown man functioning as a child in a complex adult world that he cannot comprehend.

André Samples of Mixed Blood has a natural air of vulnerability and is well cast as Barry, a schizophrenic. Barry functions in the belief that he's a golf pro and gives confusing private lessons to surprised members of the public, until his father visits and shatters his glass-like fragility.

On Mark Hauck's versatile set of three main units that revolve to create multiple scenes, Jason Lauche plays Jack, the men's pleasant but burned-out young supervisor. He's over-worked but has genuine affection for his boys; yet their constant, self-created crises wear him thin and provoke him to respond less than therapeutically.

Jack addresses the audience directly in inner moments that are signaled by a change in lighting and give insights into his and the men's world. In another moment of moving insight, Lucien stands tall, steps beyond his disability and speaks about the confines of his life.

If it is a risk to use disabled actors in this honest and hilarious glimpse of life in a group home, it's also a gift of understanding and achievement. Theatrically, it's a winner.

The Boys Next Door December 4 - January 26. Thursdays through Sundays, various times. Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501, South Fourth Street, Minneapolis. $8.75-$25. Call: 612-338-6131 or visit www.mixedblood.com.


Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area


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Elizabeth Weir



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