Penumbra Theatre's On the Open Road is the kind of show that keeps you lying awake at night contemplating your relationship to the divine. It's a play about the price of redemption--and how we bargain our way into heaven. Playwright Steve Tesich sets the scene at Jesus' second coming, an event that has torn the human race apart, spawning civil wars and dozens of new religious factions. Angel and Al--the Estragon and Vladimir of this tale--are en route to the promised land, all along collecting the artwork they believe will get them right with God.
The grand theme of Tesich's script trumps everything, looming so large as to make Penumbra's execution inconspicuous, even inconsequential (which perhaps means that director Lou Bellamy and the six-person cast have done their job exceptionally well here). Tesich draws sweeping, profoundly sad parallels between our reality and this imagined place where pageantry and superficial rites have replaced any real grace.
Veteran Penumbra actor James Craven plays Al, a pretentious slimeball who prefers the impressionists to intimacy. "You can love mankind in five minutes and still have the rest of the day to do something you really like," he counsels Angel. Al's morality is clinical, institutional. He clings to a haughty materialism that, in light of Advent II, seems as obsolete as his tattered--once dapper--suit. Towers of shelves sway with his worldly possessions--and he believes these things will pay his ticket to paradise. He preys on his accomplice's feeblemindedness, convincing Angel that choosing favorite paintings and memorizing Mozart concertos will somehow save his soul.
Angel is a hapless thug who maintains killer instincts from a youth spent prizefighting. Just beneath his gruff exterior lies a gentle soul seeking to fill a spiritual void with companionship. Benny S. Cannon easily could have played Angel as a fool, but instead recognizes his complexity with contrasting tenderness, innocence, and brutality. Longing for closeness to Al, he asks: "If an artist painted a picture of me, would you love me then?" Later Angel's eyes narrow on Al, demanding affection under threat of an ass kicking. When rejected, his voice softens almost to a whine. He sinks into a corner hugging his knees to his chest, musing about the meaninglessness of existence. When Al finally finds audience with the Almighty, he summons Angel to help wave artistic masterpieces to the sky. Angel complies, happy to be complicit during this intimate moment. Fully confident in their innocence, they shout: "Don't shoot!"
Penumbra is bucking tradition in staging such a heavy piece of work at the start of summer, when theatergoers, like everyone else, supposedly prefer to be lightly, very lightly, entertained. In the spirit of the season, then, Theatre in the Round is reviving Phillip King's late-'40s chestnut See How They Run, a British farce replete with fainting ladies, fake kissing, and suspicious moaning that emanates from just offstage. (In a nice confluence, the show is running at the same time as Park Square's remount of Noises Off, Michael Frayn's great parody of the genre.)
British Reverend Lionel Toop (Jim Hagedorn) has married the lovely Penelope (Heidi Bakke), a former actress--gasp!--from the U.S. whose unbecoming behavior incites the interest of the uptight neighbor Miss Skillon (Alicia Beth Corts) and confuses the religious order of things. Thereafter, the script is full of what chuckle-hungry audiences have long loved most: Shakespeare-style mistaken identity.
As in On the Open Road and life in general, King's characters are afraid of getting shot. The gun-wielding bad guy is an escaped Russian spy (Ben Jallon) who inspires such bygone colloquialisms as "dirty commie"--and it's good fun in that wink, wink, nudge, nudge sort of way. So, too, are the sacrilegious wisecracks and vintage sexual puns, which the cast delivers with great sport, all along smiling at their own jokes. The mistaken identity bit gets tiresome late in the show just as everyone is running in a frenzy, each chasing after the wrong guy. Luckily, Miss Skillon is still on hand for some laughs. After a few drinks, it seems she has become rather ticklish.