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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Slip/Shot, The Temperamentals and The Boy Who Sees

A Separate Peace
Akeem Davis and Kevin Meehan
Slip/Shot, a remarkable new play by Jacqueline Pardue Goldfinger, starts with a bang: the shooting of a black teenager by a white man. But what could have been a hackneyed, familiar tale becomes something else entirely, as the families of both the victim and the shooter are torn apart in unforeseen ways. Slip/Shot is full of rich characters and moving developments, and it benefits from director Rebecca Wright's intense production for the Flashpoint Theatre Company.

It's the early 1960s in racially divided Tallahassee, Florida. On the white side of town, newlyweds Clem (Kevin Meehan) and Kitty (Rachel Camp) have a passionate life. But when he goes to work as a security guard, she sits at home, bouncing her feet off her kitchen counter, bored stiff. And even though the only food she knows how to prepare is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, she says that's OK with Clem: "He don't mind that I can't cook—I got skills." Meanwhile, on the black side of town, high school senior Monroe (Akeem Davis) leads a relatively idyllic life—he's got a mother (Cathy Simpson) who dotes on him and a girlfriend named Phrasie (Taysha Canales) he's crazy about. Then one night, while Clem is at work, idly twirling his gun around, Monroe startles him, and in an instant, Monroe is lying dead on the ground. Now life will change drastically for everyone who knows them.

Clem, who has always been ashamed of his father's racism, turns paranoid as he fears the black community will make him their target. His obsession alienates him from Kitty, who has a lot of growing up to do, quickly. At the same time, Monroe's mother Miz Athey withdraws from society, directing her anger unreasonably against Phrasie ("All I know is, you're the one who kept him out late" on the night of the shooting). Eventually we see the families' lives move in parallel, and unexpected, ways; one family becomes closer, while another fractures.

Slip/Shot attracted some attention before its premiere because of its similarities to the Trayvon Martin shooting (which occurred after the play was written). The similarities are not exact: the shooting in Slip/Shot is clearly accidental, and the shooter is tormented by his remorse, neither of which seems to be true in real life. But if you go to Slip/Shot to look for commentary that the playwright never intended, you'll be disappointed. Instead, go to Slip/Shot and be dazzled by Goldfinger's perceptive dialogue, by characters who are intelligently and distinctly drawn, and by finely detailed observations that make the sparsely lit and designed play seem uncommonly vivid. The performances are all excellent, especially Camp as the bride who learns to fend for herself, Meehan as the shooter who can't come to terms with his crime, Simpson as the mother whose veneer of dignity breaks down when she's alone, and Canales, whose scene where she confronts the shooter is startlingly forceful.

Rebecca Wright's direction uses a neat element: both the black and the white families share the same kitchen set and as one family enters to start their scene, the other family lingers on the opposite side of the room, not quite ready to leave. This technique makes the play seem extraordinarily fluid—the scenes blend together, and we are reminded that this town really is one big community, no matter how much society has kept the races apart. These people have more in common than they can ever bear to admit.

Slip/Shot runs through May 5, 2012, and is presented by Flashpoint Theatre Company at the Second Stage at the Adrienne Theater, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $22, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available online at www.flashpointtheatre.org.


The Temperamentals
Matt Tallman and John Jarboe
Photo by Ian Paul Guzzone
Jon Marans' The Temperamentals, now being presented by Mauckingbird Theatre Company, has a fascinating subject: It's the true story of the men who, in the early 1950s, founded America's first gay rights organization. More than fifteen years before the Stonewall Riots marked the supposed beginning of the gay rights movement, the Mattachine Society was formed, dedicated to fighting for the rights of what its leader Harry Hay called "a sexual minority." They were trailblazers who took some daring chances, often putting their freedom at risk. It's a shame that Marans' play, while interesting, doesn't take as many risks as it should.

Hay was a husband and father (married for eleven years) when he and his secret lover, the Viennese-born Hollywood costume designer Rudi Gernreich, decided to form the organization. A dedicated Communist, Hay saw the Mattachine Society as a natural outgrowth of Communism's focus on the rights of the oppressed. ("Temperamentals" was a code word at the time meaning "homosexuals.") But despite some victories and some trying moments, including the trial of co-founder Dale Jennings on a trumped-up morals charge, the Mattachines were frustrated by their inability to draw attention to their cause.

The story is intriguing, and Marans tells it in short, economical scenes that run through the details quickly. But these scenes aren't especially dramatic; they focus on the facts and not much else. The scenes move so briskly that they never depict Harry and Rudi as fully-rounded people; we learn as little about them as is necessary to keep the narrative moving. Meanwhile, the comic relief scenes tend to fall flat, and the love scenes between Harry and Rudi aren't especially titillating. It's well-acted, and the direction by Peter Reynolds and Brandon McShaffrey tells the story efficiently, but most of the time it seems more like an uninspired history lesson than an inspiring drama.

As Harry, Matt Tallman starts out with a blank expression and a conventional business suit; he doesn't fit any gay stereotype. But as Harry becomes more involved in his cause, Tallman's performance becomes bolder, and his clothing becomes more colorful, too (Marie Anne Chiment provides the costumes). John Jarboe's Rudi is as exotic as Harry is conventional, and John Jarboe gives him a languorous allure. Mike Dees, Doug Greene and Carl Granieri play multiple roles, with Granieri especially good as the tough, gravelly-voiced Dale. Matthew Miller's overhead lighting is stark, often making the characters seem as if they're under interrogation; it's a good way of illustrating that these men lived their lives in the shadows of polite society.

The Temperamentals has a lot going for it, including a noble premise, but it doesn't quite take that premise far enough to make it rewarding as theatre. But it tells a story that deserves to be heard, and for that, at least, Mauckingbird deserves to be applauded.

The Temperamentals runs through April 29, 2012, and is presented by Mauckingbird Theatre Company at The Skybox at the Adrienne Theater, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $25, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available by calling the box office at (215) 923-8909 or online at www.mauckingbird.org.


The Boy Who Sees is a new play by Davon Williams, a local artist who is making a distinctive mark as an actor; he's currently giving stirring performances in two classics at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, Titus Andronicus and Twelfth Night. But his own effort as a playwright is, unfortunately, not one for the ages: It's a blend of social drama, melodrama, fantasy, and even some modern dance elements that never gels.

James (Brett Gray) is fourteen years old and has been blind since the age of three. His mother Claire (Erica Brown) is home-schooling him, which is difficult because he is having a hard time learning Braille. (The fact that a blind child James' age would probably learn Braille much earlier is mentioned briefly, then dismissed. It's one of the many improbabilities that make this play hard to swallow.) James' creepy tutor Dr. Douglas (Andre Brown) is trying to have him read Ibsen's A Doll's House (seriously!), but David resists learning, and he suspects Dr. Douglas of having sexual designs on him.

Ah, you might think, this is going to be a hard-hitting social drama about child molestation, and how even the most innocent children can be victimized ... but you would be wrong. Just as this plot starts getting interesting, the tutor is fired, and we spend the next hour of this 90-minute play focusing on a love triangle for Claire. Which man should she choose: Frank (Kash Goins), who has been supporting Claire and James for years even though he's cheating on his wife, or David (Hasan Malik), who just wandered in (literally—how he gets into Claire's house is never explained) after spending the last fourteen years as a sailor? (I'd say neither—they both seem irresponsible.) Meanwhile, young James—the title character, remember him?—has developed a sort of "radar" sense that lets him figure out what's happening in the room even though he can't see it. He can even create origami animals, folding the paper precisely; how does he do it? Is he mystically blessed? James has interludes where he stands still onstage while a dancer (Jamey Leeanne Long-Rislin as "The Sun") performs expressive African-style dancing as pre-recorded poetry is heard. This poetry represents the thoughts in James' head, I guess; it's hard to hear.

The Boy Who Sees has some smart, wordy dialogue, but its scenes are filled with arguments that seem endless, wearing out any sympathy one might have for the characters. None of the plot threads go anywhere—they all have ambiguous, unsatisfying endings. (Even Dr. Douglas is brought back at the end, presumably because his story had been wrapped up too tidily.) The arty elements (Long-Rislin's dancing, and the magic realism of James' scenes) are completely out of sync with the tired soap opera clichés of the love triangle—and that love triangle consumes most of the play's time.

The all-African-American cast is attractive and appealing, but can't rise above the leaden limitations of the script. Jesimiel R. Jenkins directs, making the best of some low-budget technical aspects.

The Boy Who Sees runs through April 29, 2012, and is presented by Nova D Arts Collective, GoKash Productions and Danse4Nia Repertory Ensemble at First Philadelphia Charter School, 4300 Tacony Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $20 at the door ($15 online) and are available at www.novadartscollective.com.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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