Touch of Evil

Dial 'M' for Murder
Jungle Theater
The Waltz of the Toreadors
Park Square Theatre

American theater has a problem with evil. In his seminal article "The Theatre of Good Intentions," avant-garde playwright Mac Wellman postulated that on the American stage any unsympathetic character "must always be shown to have suffered in such and such ways that have produced his behavior." The well-made kitchen-sink drama becomes a kind of group therapy in which an audience demands to like the characters on stage and an actor demands to be liked; and ultimately everyone is perfectly rounded, easily explained, and ideally suited for method acting.

Evil, then, becomes inert. As Wellman says, "Evil must be explained away until it too can be uplifting, a source of happy feelings and optimism, a celebration of good intentions proven triumphant." But, of course, under these guidelines Iago could never exist. And without evil, where is conflict--and without conflict, where is drama? And without evil, what would become of the classic British thriller Dial 'M' for Murder?

Tony, the protagonist, is a bad man. He wants to murder his wife; his motive is loosely connected to money and to her erstwhile extramarital affair, but in the Jungle Theater's impeccable production, any deeper motive is incidental to the high Tony gets from executing his plan.

As the lights come up, Max Halliday (Terry Hempleman) and Margot Wendice (Suzanne Koepplinger) are having a drink in the sitting room of the Wendice flat. Their idle conversation is peppered with nervous laughter, shuffling, gazes held too long, and gazes turned away. The two had been lovers, we learn, and Margot's husband Tony, a retired tennis player, never knew. And he will be returning home soon. The ex-lovers keep glancing back at the front door--which stands ominously upstage center--waiting for Tony. The sound of a key, the door handle slowly turning--and Tony (J.C. Cutler) enters...delighted to meet his wife's friend from America.

After some small talk Max and Margot head out to dinner, while Tony waves a jovial goodbye from the hallway. A moment passes. The couple is gone. Tony turns slowly towards us. He smirks. He knows everything. Standing in the doorway, cast in the red coloring of the foyer, Tony radiates evil.

Director Bain Boehlke and his fine cast possess the rare ability to create tension through silence. It's sheer manipulation, and it works; a doorknob turns creakily as tension washes over the theater, and one glance from Tony sends chills up to the back row. Curiously, Tony, in all his malevolence, seems sympathetic. The same habits that cause us to cheer for Hannibal Lecter's escape spur a desire to see Tony get away with it. He's so civilized, so handsome, so suave, so good at being evil.

Besides, he's the protagonist, and as our theatrical tradition has it, we're supposed to see his desires fulfilled. The nefarious protagonist thrust up against a culture of empathy makes for a chilling cognitive dissonance. What is it about our stage conventions that would stir in us the desire to let an antihero get away with murder?

JEAN ANOUILH'S WALTZ of the Toreadors is a product of the drama of postwar France, and as such it has little to do with good intentions. This tradition invites the audience to laugh darkly in the face of despair and features empty characters speaking empty words. Anouilh's plays are more story-driven than their absurdist cousins, but they are no less surreal. Waltz juxtaposes absurdist farce with existential despair and the play slowly becomes an exploration of spiritual barrenness. The dramatic shift requires actors to forgo characterization, but Park Square's production ignores the necessary theatricality and tries to present a coherent, well-made American tragicomedy. Which, as a result, fails to be very tragic or very comic.

As the play opens, the aging General St. Pé (Guthrie vet Michael Tezla, looking like the love-child of Joseph Stalin and Mark Twain) sits at his desk while his bedridden wife (Barbara Kingsley) harangues, "You are thinking about women being beautiful and warm, and good to touch, and not feeling all alone in the world for a while..." And though the play's dialogue, like this sample, is a poetic abstraction that should indicate a primacy of language over character, the production instead tries to forge "real" characters out of the abstraction.

Barbara Kingsley is the only principal who reverses this formula; in one moment of grand physical comedy she fakes a heart attack and rigor mortis, while in the next she stands on her bed trembling in righteous rage debunking everything we've believed so far. Her performance (along with a woefully small appearance by Dale Pfeilsticker) lifts the play out of its muddled mire; but, alas, she's relegated too soon to her bed. Then we are left with a two-and-a-half-hour museum piece.

Many of the comments designed to make St. Pé look like a cad were written before a feminist movement made jokes about raping 12-year-old girls déclassé. Though the play may be musty, Park Square proves a particularly inept taxidermist--despite a talented cast and, as always, the best intentions.

Dial 'M' for Murder runs through July 26 at the Jungle Theater; call 332-7481.
The Waltz of the Toreadorsruns through April 26 at Park Square Theatre; call 291-7005.

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