AXIS debuts amiably with 'Formicans,' aliens in a normality play

January 22, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Anyone who's experienced the tragedy of a family member stricken with Alzheimer's has probably imagined at one time or another that either he -- or the patient -- was possessed by aliens. And anyone who's lived with a teen-ager is undoubtedly convinced the kid is an alien.

Reduced to its simplest terms, that's the premise of Constance Congdon's dark domestic comedy, "Tales of the Lost Formicans" -- the inaugural production of Baltimore's newest theater company, AXIS Theatre.

In AXIS' season brochure, the adjectives "outrageous," "thoughtful" and "quirky" are used to describe the type of material the theater intends to produce, and Brian Klaas and Jon Lipitz -- the artistic and producing directors, respectively -- have found a play that's all three in "Tales of the Lost Formicans."

Structured as a series of short scenes that alternate between a suburban family and the extraterrestrials who are observing them, the play is a kind of cross between "The Donna Reed Show" and "Star Trek."

Cathy McKissick, the recently separated mother of a teen-age son, returns home to live with her parents. But instead of finding the comforts of her childhood, she is thrown into the off-kilter world of her father, who suffers from Alzheimer's.

The increasing confusion her father confronts in such everyday objects as a toaster is amusingly echoed by the strange "scientific" findings of the extraterrestrials. (They conclude, for instance, that a dinette chair has spiritual significance.) Accentuating the absurdity is the family's neighbor, a male nurse tormented by conspiracy theories and a nutty conviction that we are being observed by aliens.

Director Klaas' style totters effectively between camp and compassion, silliness and sadness. And though he might have trimmed the script a bit and tidied up the peculiar ending -- which peters out like an over-written "Saturday Night Live" skit -- he has assembled a company that meets most of the demands of this unconventional work.

Jennifer Brown and Peter Wilkes bring poignancy to the roles of Cathy and her father, and as the neighbor, Jack Manion projects the vulnerability of a deer caught in the headlights. Larry Malkus and Darlene Deardorff are suitably kooky as Cathy's son and her wild girlhood friend, but there's something a bit flat in both Ellen Strauss' portrayal of Cathy's mother and John Potocko's depiction of the chief alien.

What Congdon seems to be getting at -- in too long-winded a fashion -- is that old question of what constitutes normality. Or, to put it another way, who are the aliens? Us or them? By the end of the production, you'll probably be convinced the answer is "both."

A final word about AXIS. This new company had so many problems getting started, it may have seemed as if alien forces were conspiring against it. First it lost its performing space, then after relocating in Meadow Mill, it lost the rights to the show that was to be the season opener.

Now, however, AXIS has found a 68-seat home that is congenial, if somewhat off the beaten track (an exterior sign is definitely needed). And it has embarked on a season that is adventuresome, iconoclastic and, judging from this first offering, decidedly welcome.

"Tales of the Lost Formicans."

Where: AXIS Theatre, Meadow Mill, 3600 Clipper Mill Road.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 14.

Tickets: $10-$12.

Call: (410) 243-5237.

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