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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

The Eyes of Babylon and A Midsummer Night's Dream

Also see Tim's reviews of Superior Donuts and Losing the Shore

The Eyes of Babylon
Jeff Key
Jeff Key was 34 years old when he enlisted in the Marines in 2000, driven by his patriotism and outraged by the attack on the USS Cole. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for that attack, yet when 9/11 happened a year later, Key says, he had never even heard of Al Qaeda. Key's remarkable journey of the past eleven years—from Alabama to Iraq to West Hollywood, from uninformed warrior to outraged anti-war activist, from closeted Marine to outspoken opponent of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"—makes up his eye-opening one-man show The Eyes of Babylon, now playing at the Bristol Riverside Theatre. (It will be playing Off-Broadway this summer.)

Key is likable, open, and engaging in his manner, whether he's invoking his camaraderie with straight Marines (many of whom knew he was gay), observing the natural wildlife of the Iraqi countryside, or letting off steam by blasting music from Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent. He also comes tantalizingly close to romance in an encounter that's described with restrained grace. But he also sees his dark, self-loathing side, blasting his "killer nature." As he tries to set a positive example for the Iraqis, he sees how most of his comrades do the opposite. He eventually concludes that "we're recruiting terrorists," and falls into a deep depression when he discovers the real reasons the military was sent to Iraq ("one night when I was asleep, somebody switched the enemy"). That leads him to a resignation letter, which he reads to the audience. In the process, he shows how truly brave he is.

A word of warning: The Eyes of Babylon isn't for everyone. Key swears like, well, a Marine. There are a few racial and ethnic slurs. And there were a lot of disgusted faces in the seats around me as Key spent several minutes detailing his masturbation habits. (I was surprised that no one walked out.) As a production, it's flawed: Yuval Hadadi's direction is full of sometimes graceless transitions from scene to scene, and the set and lighting are dreary. And while he's amiable, Key isn't a gifted performer; his throaty voice has a limited range.

Still, what makes The Eyes of Babylon compelling is that Key is able to step outside his own story and evaluate his own place in the society he has so long embraced. As an American in Iraq, he's a stranger in a strange land—but as a gay man in the Marines, he already felt that way anyway. It's a fascinating, well-told story, and Key's presentation is quietly powerful and inspirational.

The Eyes of Babylon runs through April 3, 2011, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Ticket start at $31, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100, online at www.brtstage.org, or by visiting the box office.


A Midsummer Night's Dream
David J. Sweeny and Charlotte Ford
Photo: Mark Garvin
Lantern Theater Company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is two and a half hours of almost continuous pleasure. Director Charles McMahon has provided fresh spins on Shakespeare's familiar characters, performed by actors who are clearly having a lot of fun.

This Midsummer seems more joke filled than usual, but it's not campy. The actors take their time to make sure every joke lands, but the production never drags. It's not dumbed down at all, but McMahon and his crew make sure that everything is understood by the audience. And even those who think they've seen Midsummer a few times too many may be surprised at the way the characters are depicted.

For instance, the King and Queen whose wedding sets the plot in motion, Theseus (Charlie DelMarcelle) and Hippolyta (Joanna Liao), are not merely genial hosts who take a back seat in the plot. Here, the play begins with the pair conducting a swordfight. Is it for sport, or for play? They are literally at each other's throats, and we see the fierce passion that they have for each other—and how they annoy each other, too. Puck, who is usually portrayed as a fanciful, mischievous sprite, is played by Dave Johnson as a well-meaning buffoon who blunders into one mishap after another. When his master Oberon gives him instructions, it's clear from Johnson's delightfully bewildered expression that he just doesn't know what's going on. And Bottom, the ham actor who wants to play every role in a play celebrating the royal wedding, is larger than life in Benjamin Lloyd's portrayal; for once, I thought that Bottom might actually pull off all those roles.

The heart of Shakespeare's story centers on two pairs of battling lovers: Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius. Hermia (Charlotte Ford) is petulant, and Helena (Lee Ann Etzold) is overly sensitive, and at first they seem to be battling to see who can make their eyes bug out further. Yet both ladies are hilarious, gawky, and improbably sexy. When they turn on each other in the play's second half, with jibes over their difference in height that lead to a wild, raucous wrestling match, it's a marvelous comic achievement. (J. Alex Cordaro did the fight choreography.)

The show's failings are minor. David J. Sweeny and Bradley K. Wrenn are appealing as the objects of Hermia's and Helena's affections, although it takes a while for them to step out of the ladies' shadows. There's a drab set design by Meghan Jones consisting mostly of gray slabs that look like concrete. They don't convey the feeling that we are in a magical forest. Mary Folino's multicolored costumes are interesting, but they don't do enough to make the show look lively. (When the fairies make their appearance, it's a bit of a letdown.) And in the last fifteen minutes, during the play within a play, things start to bog down. There's basically one joke in this scene—that the "Rude Mechanicals" employed to perform for the King and Queen are untalented—and that joke goes on too long.

Still, the scene is performed with high spirits, like every other scene in this mostly terrific production. Credit McMahon and his crew for an inventive approach to the material, and actors who are up to the challenge. "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" declares Puck, but he's the only one who could be upset about foolishness this entertaining.

A Midsummer Night's Dream runs through April 17, 2011, and is presented by Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets. Ticket prices range from $20 to $36 and may be purchased by calling the Box Office at 215-829-0395, online at www.lanterntheater.org or in person at the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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