And Baby Makes Seven
Outward Spiral Theatre Company
Duel (or The Grand Duke)
Oasis Theatre Company
A GROUP OF small boys are checking out, one by one, in the beginning of Paula Vogel's play And Baby Makes Seven. The first goes down in a rabies-induced convulsion. The second mysteriously disappears. The third takes a sword to the midsection, Shakespearean style. And the parents, in this case two lesbian mommies (one of them immensely pregnant) and a gay uncle/daddy, take it all in stride. Hell, they're the ones knockin' 'em off.
The situation's not as dire as it sounds, however. The victims are imaginary kids--some might say those are the best kind--and the mommies transform themselves into these youthful alter egos on stage with Sybil-like unpredictability. But they've agreed to dispatch these fleeting characters for Uncle Pete's sake; he argues that the family's demarcation between reality and fantasy is getting a bit blurry, especially with the real deal on the way.
The Obie award-winning Vogel is generally not afraid to provoke; her plays are laced with politically incorrect characters, graphic sex, and in-your-face critiques of the work of popular playwrights such as Sam Shepard (nice going on that one). Nevertheless, with And Baby Makes Seven, solidly staged by Outward Spiral's Suzy Messerole and Timothy Lee, Vogel has crafted a funny, subtle, and strangely safe play about a threesome's preparations for parenthood. An odd result, especially coming from a dramatist who has joked about establishing a Dinner Theater of Cruelty.
Actors Sarah Brown and Elizabeth Dwyer capably handle the most obvious challenge--assuming the guise of boys aged 7 to 9--although the latter's emphasis on working her eyes fares better than the former's reliance on facial contortions. In one highlight, Dwyer enacts a spirited fight over a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich between two of her fictional charges: the French-born Henri and the feral Orphan, who was, naturally, raised by dogs. Inevitably, Dog Boy wins out. And all the while on opening night, a young girl in the front row giggled and grunted approvingly, presumably enthralled by two peers. The harshest possible critic of child acting had just passed judgment.
Brown, who plays the pregnant Anna, and Jef Hall-Flavin, who plays the jittery uncle-to-be, also make good on a remarkable scene where Peter is asked to off Cecil, a 9-year-old doctoral candidate. Before Uncle Pete does the dirty deed, though, it becomes clear that the two adults channel their most sensitive communication through this invented Poindexter, and the audience is left to wonder how well they'll manage without him.
But at other times, the playwright seems to dodge the inherent complications in these relationships. When Ruth and Peter arrive home after watching Anna give birth, a major issue finally surfaces between mommy's lover and mommy's seed-provider: jealousy. All right, I figured, enough of this gay-and-lesbian Waltons stuff; let's see some trouble. But no. Ruth quickly defuses the situation with an amazing gesture of generosity. So it is throughout the show. How nice. And, by the time you get to the car, how forgettable.
GAY RELATIONSHIPS ARE also a major element in the latest production from the L.A.-based Oasis Theatre--a revival, in a postapocalyptic Teutonic setting, no less, of Gilbert and Sullivan's last operetta, The Grand Duke. Personally, I've about had it with preapocalyptic treatments of anything postapocalyptic. But director/revisionist Christopher Taylor argues that this update, along with the addition of gay and lesbian characters, helps to convert the musical from a museum piece into a relevant, accessible commentary on the dubious nature of revolutions.
The idea does generate a few thoughtful twists. The show's "statutory duels," in which the loser in a game of high card gives up her identity and civil rights, present a particularly apt metaphor for coming out in gay life. Still, many of Taylor's modern touches don't really add much; no one, for instance, needs another reminder that military marching bands get more federal funds than the National Endowment for the Arts (evidently this policy survives Armageddon). Likewise, the characters' assertion that impending gay and lesbian marriages threaten the institution of wedlock results in yawns, not irony; anyone motivated enough to see this show can probably do without such choir-preaching.
Not surprisingly, then, Duel's primary charms lie in the choir itself: in this case, the enduringly clever lyrics and unpretentious melodies of Gilbert and Sullivan. This production does avoid the problem that often torpedoes low-rent musicals: the One Really Bad Voice. This cast belts out solid choruses, and some performers (Christine M. Winkler and Tom Barth, among others) deliver pleasing solos. But they've got the material to work with: In the end, it's a pair of 19th-century Brits who save the day in 24th-century Germany.
And Baby Makes Seven runs through October 11 in the Little Theatre of the Hennepin Center for the Arts; call 871-4674. Duel runs through October 12 at the Hennepin Center for the Arts, Studio 6A; call 603-8733.
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