Cheap Theatre

DeGrade School
Jungle Theater

SOMETIMES THE LOCAL theater scene makes me sad. It's not so much the abundance of mediocre work out there--if anything, that's probably a sign of healthy activity. Instead, it's the good shows that get to me, the ones that deserve bigger budgets, better spaces, wider audiences. This is actually a national phenomenon: In this country today, it's to be expected that smart, talented theater people might toil on their craft for years and still play to tiny crowds in crappy little rooms.

Case in point: Cheap Theatre's production of Leaves, by local thespian Randy Sue Latimer, which is a good, finely etched play. The cast of 10 is exceptionally mature by the standards of "cheap" theater. And the direction by Joel Sass (of Mary Worth fame) is sensitive and assured. Suffice to say this show deserves more than 15 or 20 people on an opening-weekend night. It would be one thing if this were wacky, adventurous work--the kind of stuff Mary Worth or any number of young troupes put on around town. But Leaves is the sort of play you might see at Illusion--traditional, grown-up, deep. It's pitched at the age group that still goes to the theater.

In an upscale hamlet (presumably in Minnesota), a young couple prepares for their first baby. A convicted child molester moves into town, and the couple's newborn is subsequently killed. We know who did it, but the characters don't--at least not for sure. A witch-hunt and some predictable soul-searching follow: Why do we live in small towns? Are we copping out from the big struggles? Are we really escaping anything? It's well-trod territory, but the overall effect of this understated and autumnal tale is haunting and oddly beautiful.

The show opens with the husband, Peter (Casey E. Lewis), and his wife, Hope (Gail Quinn, nee Hammerschmidt), preparing to go out. Hope is staring in the mirror, horrified that pregnancy has changed her skin. She whines over and over, "My skin's getting hard!" as she pinches at it. (This moment may be even more annoying than Latimer intended; personally, I wanted to slug her.) At times, Hope is an irritating princess, and at others, her impatience with pregnancy is refreshing. Things start to get creepy when, late in her term, she jogs in a crazy circle around the stage and off-handedly taps her belly with a large cooking spoon.

As Quinn slides to the dark side of the mind almost seamlessly, the sense of penumbra between sanity and dementia--between a picture-perfect present and an uncertain future--is echoed in the falling leaves, the atmosphere of impending winter. Sass doesn't push the metaphor too hard, using a deep-blue set pricked with stars and moody lighting. Perversely, my favorite scene is between Henry, the child molester, and a neighborhood kid who has stopped by Henry's yard on his bike (and who we can't see). Henry (played delicately by Michael Belfiore) doesn't try to initiate conversation with the kid, but he doesn't back off when the boy sticks around to chat. We can see Henry's nervous tension as they discuss bikes, as well as his genuine affection for the kid. It's a brave, exceedingly rare moment of taboo-crossing. If only Cheap Theatre had the resources to mount this show with stronger production values; there's a depth here that begs to be mined further.

Of course, production values don't always matter: Some of my most memorable theatrical experiences in the past year have been the one-man shows in the Jungle's Late Nite series, wherein the performers tend to use whatever set happens to be up at the time--the performer is the show. For DeGrade School last weekend, there's no denying that I caught its star Heidi Arneson on an off night. It was a small house--maybe 10 people--and, understandably, she felt uncomfortable. But she shouldn't have let us know about it. Audience/actor bonding is one thing, but to describe how hard it is to do a solo show late at night to a small house just isn't cool. I mean, we're not the assholes who didn't show up.

The show itself is an amusing if not belly-wrenching look at the trials of elementary school, with Arneson assuming well over 20 characters (all of whom seem to bug their eyes). Teachers are her strongest suit: scary-smile fascists; a beautiful dancer surrounded by two or three "invisible boyfriends"; men whose hearts and loins hang in the air. She's also got a way with delicious and disgusting detail: the sensual pleasures of big red dictionaries and new black shoes, and the horror of hot lunches, teachers' moley faces, and zits. If Arneson had pretended the size of her audience as well as she pretends everything else, she would have enchanted us with her story. As it was, I felt obliged to help her get through it.

Leaves runs through October 26 at the Cedar-Riverside People's Center; call 870-6583. DeGrade School runs through October 31 at the Jungle Theater; call 822-7063.

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