'Columbus, A Ghost Story' sets off in questionable directions

January 29, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

SEVERAL TIMES during Impossible Industrial Action's "Columbus, A Ghost Story," the actors sing: "Columbus sailed the ocean sea/and stole this land for you and me." That couplet sums up the political philosophy behind this revisionist, multi-media performance piece, premiering at Towson State University.

Using slides, choral speaking, masks, tableaux, live music composed by Mark Harp, and even a ventriloquist's dummy, author and director Kirby Malone suggests that the primary outcome of Columbus' discovery -- and the eventual founding of the United States -- was the conquest and destruction of Native Americans.

Granted, too many schoolbooks gloss over this heinous aspect of history. But theatrical over-simplification is not necessarily the best remedy for textbook over-simplification. More likely, it compounds the problem -- merely from another angle.

IIA's cast of 10 -- featuring Tony Tsendeas and Robb Bauer in a variety of roles -- does produce some striking images. The settlement of the continent is portrayed partly as a Holy War, and during a musical number that includes the lyric: "We had the Bible, they had the land," actors cower in front of a gigantic Bible that is subsequently used to crush them.

But more than organized religion is taken to task here. As in other IIA productions, Big Business is also assailed. In this case, mask maker Paul Wright emphasizes the role of commerce by outfitting the Founding Fathers in headpieces in the form of oversized U.S. currency.

The show's format uses the rather trite device of a dream; A little girl (Kristin T. Kubiak) takes a fantasy journey conducted by Christopher Columbus -- represented by the aforementioned ventriloquist's dummy, which looks like a cross between Howdy Doody and Chucky of the "Child's Play" movies.

Just before awakening, the little girl proves she has learned her lessons well by asking the conscience-stricken question: "What can I do?" The production -- already more pedantic than dramatic -- supplies a predictably didactic answer.

This 500th anniversary year of Christopher Columbus' voyage will undoubtedly be celebrated with more commercial hoopla than even Impossible Industrial Action can imagine. "Columbus, A Ghost Story" may be an effort to counteract that, but it paints its picture with so broad a brush that the finer points are obscured. In its broadest stroke, IIA attempts to link the European settlers' treatment of Native Americans to the Gulf war -- a leap of faith even in this politically correct context.

"Columbus, A Ghost Story" continues at Towson State University through Feb. 2. Saturday's performance will benefit the Baltimore American Indian Center. Call (410) 830-2787.

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