Defending the Caveman

Before Bart fell down the well, there was Floyd Collins

The prospect of being trapped in a narrow cave more than 100 feet below the earth's surface elicits any number of conceivable reactions, although breaking into song is not the first one that springs to mind. And yet this accomplished and moving local premiere of Floyd Collins, a 1996 musical in which the primary protagonist spends the bulk of the evening unable to move, captures a dynamic between hope, impossibility, and the freedom of oblivion.

When the story opens, Floyd (Dieter Bierbrauer) is an enterprising cave explorer in 1925 Barren County, Kentucky, with dreams of locating a subterranean cavern that he can convert into a tourist trap. Matters go awry when he plunges down an unstable passage and finds himself wedged into a rocky tomb with a small boulder pinning his foot. Things turn ironic in this real-life story when a reporter named Skeets Miller (Jason Bohon) syndicates articles about Floyd, who becomes a national celebrity and a generator of considerable tourist revenue.

There's a hole in my heart/As deep as a well/For that poor little boy/Who's stuck halfway to hell
Rick Spaulding
There's a hole in my heart/As deep as a well/For that poor little boy/Who's stuck halfway to hell

Tina Landau's book is generally taut and cliché-averse, and Adam Guettel's music and lyrics follow suit. The inherent awkwardness of the story's structure (it is defiantly resistant to the three-act formulation) finds reflection in the tunes, which are often wordy and tricky, with director Andrew Cooke's four-piece ensemble slaloming down some perilous hills with a decent rate of success.

The action begins to spin its wheels a bit by the second act, primarily because Bierbrauer spends long stretches immobile and agonized. There's good will in the bank, following such high points as little sister Nellie (Zoe Pappas, with a sweet-voiced ambivalence), and Floyd and Homer (Shaun Nathan Baer) singing about echoes of childhood memory--but the reserve is running down. The show rallies mightily in the end, however, on the strength of a stunningly staged dream sequence and a final song in which Bierbrauer sings beautifully about loosening his character's bond to this mortal existence. While there were moments when I felt as though I may as well have been stuck in a cave with Floyd, by the end I caught a glimpse of gorgeous daylight.

 

Richard Strand'sTen Percent of Marta Solano (a bilingual production, performed on different nights in either Spanish or English) ventures into the purgatorial realm of the bureaucratically wronged, with a good deal of invention and comedic spark.

Trouble for Marta (Claudia Vázquez) begins when she shows up at the DMV to correct a minor error on her driver's license. She is greeted by a burned-out functionary (Mark Sieve), who thwarts her attempts at setting things right. Soon Marta begins to bounce from station to station in a series of events that sees her lose her home and possessions, her identity as an artist, and finally her freedom and potentially her life. Ushering her down into this surreal brand of hell is Sieve, who plays some 10 characters of differing gender and ethnicity without changing his appearance or costume, or wholly shedding his air of bland superiority.

At first the show tickles with its brash flaunting of reality, and Vázquez and Sieve bounce off one another with lively friction. A fascinating subtext emerges--Marta essentially views worldly obstacles as embodied by one indifferent and ultimately malicious white guy--but it flashes by without deeper exploration. At the end, we are left with an entirely unsatisfying switcheroo. Despite the appealing rawness of the staging--much of the night is spent under harsh office fluorescence--it's hard to connect with this story about the human disconnect in contemporary life. Watching the inert drama of Ten Percent of Marta Solano is a bit like sitting in the Plastiform chairs at the DMV, except that this show never gets around to calling your number.

 
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