Creative Dementia

Penumbra Theatre and Fully Reciprocal Theatre discover that an artist's inspiration is a rambling mother

For a writer under the age of 30, Carl Hancock Rux seems to be generating more buzz than an entire swarm of his contemporaries. Along with a Bessie and a Fresh Poet Prize from the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe, Rux made the New York Times list of "Thirty Artists Under the Age of Thirty Most Likely to Influence Culture" and the Village Voice's "Eight Writers on the Verge of Shaking Up the Literary Landscape." With all this influencing and shaking going on, we were naturally primed to catch the premiere of Rux's "Geneva Cottrell, Waiting for the Dog to Die," which is playing with Pearl Cleage's "Hospice" as part of Penumbra's One-Act Celebration. We might now add to the litany of cumbersome commendations "Writer Least Likely to Disappoint the Premature Speculation of Gushing Critics."

Rux is primarily a poet, so it is not surprising that "Geneva Cottrell, Waiting for the Dog to Die" is less a play than a prose poem written for the stage. At first glance Seitu Jones's set--a sepulchral room littered with old newspapers, picture frames, and paint-splattered smocks--suggests the inner sanctum of an artist. The studio's denizen, Racine (Ahanti Young), begins the play sitting on a chair upstage, smoking solemnly and staring into the audience. Like a toy that has been wound up and left to run, Racine bursts out of his seat and lets loose a breathless flood of words that doesn't stop for the better part of 40 minutes. It's impossible to assimilate most of what he is saying, but the gist of it seems to be a protracted dialogue between two of the voices in his head, Geneva (Sonja Parks) and his Muse (Alexander Parker).

Like most contemporary poetry, Rux's language reveals itself through pattern and rhythm rather than character and plot. Contrary to the play's title, there is no dog, expiring or otherwise, and the thin thread of the story twists and fractures until it's hardly worth trying to unravel. We have reason to believe that Geneva is Racine's mother and that the artist's "season of deconstruction" represents an attempt to reconcile his ancestry with his art. Instead of straightening things out for us, director Laurie Carlos renders "Geneva Cottrell" with the subtlety of a seizure, propelling the action forward with kinetic energy and surges of disjointed poetry. As the lights came up, a young lady in the audience was heard to remark, "That was so cool." In these days of dull and derivative theater, that is high praise indeed.

"Hospice," the second one-act in Penumbra's double-header, suffers by comparison. Following "Geneva Cottrell" with a sedate domestic drama is a bit like expecting an audience to pay attention to a game of checkers after watching an hour of nude Jell-O therapy.

After a short intermission, the dingy and disintegrating artist's loft has metamorphosed into a prim living room, replete with neatly stocked bookshelves, plump furniture, and the rhapsodic strains of Puccini drifting from an old record player. Off in one corner, Jenny (Tonia Jackson), ripe with child, is tapping out poetry at her typewriter. The domestic tableau is not all tranquillity, however; on the second level, a withered body rises slowly from beneath the sheets, whimpering like a dying dog. The body belongs to Jenny's wayward mother Alice (Demene E. Hall), who has returned to the house in which she was born to make her final exit. As if a tired, dying mother and a daughter about to break water weren't enough to generate some drama, we learn that Jenny resents Alice for abandoning her and running off to Paris to become a poet. Alice, for her part, wants nothing more than to circle the drain of infinity without her daughter trying to dredge up a life story to recycle in some schoolgirl versifying. Cue bitter recriminations, mother-daughter bonding, more recriminations, and a tearful reconciliation as Jenny rushes off to the hospital to bring a new life into the world and Alice drags herself slowly back up the stairs to wait for the candle to burn out.

If director Lou Bellamy doesn't manage to imbue "Hospice" with the same manic intensity as appears in "Geneva Cottrell," he and his Penumbra cast still deserve kudos for producing new one-act plays. After a somewhat disappointing 20th-anniversary season devoted to restaging old Penumbra hits, the company seems to have regained some of its experimental fire.

 

Like Carl Hancock Rux, Richard Greenberg is a young playwright. Unlike Rux, however, Greenberg will probably never be picked by critics as the epicenter of a culture quake. This is partially because he suffers from an acute case of McInerney Syndrome, a rare and incurable condition that causes the afflicted to think that the 1980s didn't end a decade ago. Although yuppies and their callow affectations may be passé, Fully Reciprocal Theatre Company's fabulous production of Greenberg's The Maderati demonstrates that there is still plenty of laughter to be wrung from those crazy children of decadence.

Like so many good stories, The Maderati begins in the hazy aftermath of a soiree, where the young and beautiful "were as thick as porterhouse steak." The hosts, Rena and Chuck DeButts (Jackie Fabus and Richard Fleischman), discover that one of their guests, a suicidal poet named Charlotte (Kari Shaff), has been committed to a mental institution. Of course, they spread the news to their circle of friends: Ritt and Dewy Overlander (Mark Ristau and Kirby Bennett), a sublimely dysfunctional couple; Martin Royale (Mikal Kraklio), an effete publisher teetering on the edge of the wagon; and Keene Esterhazy (Jeff Redman), a narcoleptic novelist who pens lines like "Because I could not stop for death, instead I stopped for tea" and wonders why he isn't getting published. Also present is Danton (Arthur Piubeni), a gorgeous but monosyllabic actor whom all the other characters want to kill, shag, or kill and shag. A bit later his girlfriend Cuddles Molotov (Ann Michels) shows up waving a butcher knife and raving like Nicole Kidman after a weeklong crystal meth binge.

As the Dickensian sobriquets suggest, The Maderati tends heavily toward broad satire. Occasionally the gags seem sophomoric: Dewy and Cuddles are outrageous drama queens, Keene responds to everything by falling asleep, and Ritt wanders into the back of Martin's apartment and muses, "If I were you, I'd live in this closet." Yet Greenberg hits more often than he misses, with trenchant parodies of bourgeois angst.

Fully Reciprocal's uniformly outstanding cast plays it all perfectly, skipping through the gleefully frivolous comedy of errors with the grace of a seasoned comic troupe. If the personality disorders of the yuppie eventually wear thin, The Maderati makes us appreciate our narrow escape into the decade of Zoloft.

 

The One-Act Celebration runs through May 9 at Penumbra Theatre; (651) 224-3180.The Maderati runs through May 1 at Cedar-Riverside People's Center; (651) 257-7265.

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