Hoffman meets Atwater in a self-indulgent 'happening'

December 08, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Let's say you're Christmas shopping at Towson Marketplace. You've found a spiffy warm-up suit for junior when you notice something strange going on in the former showroom of Shavitz Furniture.

You walk in and someone asks you to select a button from a display bearing such slogans as: "US Troops Out of the Middle East" and "Boycott Excessive Packaging"; someone else hands you a slip of paper and asks you to write down an issue and put the paper in a top hat.

And oh yes, a third person asks you for $7 and hands you a program for Mother Lode Productions' original theater piece, "Abbie/Other Works of Art/Lee," written by Joe Brady and Karen Bradley and subtitled "An interactive journey through an art gallery with the mythic figures of the American left and right: Abbie Hoffman and Lee Atwater."

Welcome to a good, old-fashioned Sixties happening, where references to the icons of the era, i.e., flower children, and hallucinogens, are mingled with portrayals of anti-war activist Abbie Hoffman and -- in a bit of a flash forward -- former Bush campaign manager and Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater.

During 31 scenes spread over nearly three hours, Bruce Nelson, as the Barker, leads the audience from room to room of the sprawling store. The rooms contain depictions of real and fictitious characters, who are portrayed by an ensemble of actors. Hoffman and Atwater are each played, at various times, by three actors of both genders. The same performers also provide glimpses of characters ranging from a fundamentalist preacher to a public relations consultant recovering from numerous addictions.

Participation is encouraged in several scenes, including one in which theatergoers can stand on a soapbox and address an issue pulled out of the aforementioned hat.

Although much of what goes on seems extraneous and even tedious, a point begins to emerge after intermission, when parallels are drawn between the title characters. In a chilling performance, Jimi Kinstle portrays a manic depressive, fugitive Hoffman undergoing a drug-abetted breakdown. In the next scene, Marietta Hedges portrays Atwater collapsing from a brain tumor.

A further parallel is presented in a scene in which a psychiatrist sits between both characters, who, though unaware of each other's presence, respond to several of his questions in unison.

But did Hoffman and Atwater truly end up being ideological brothers? Though Atwater's final scene shows him recanting many of his former beliefs, it seems too facilely convenient to interpret Hoffman's suicide as a political change of heart.

The creators of this piece seem to have realized this since they give the final word to one of their fictitious characters. The Barker reminisces about the anti-war demonstrations in which he marched, and especially about one in which he caught the eye of a policeman and realized they both thought what they were doing was "stupid." Granted, this makes a neat and tidy conclusion, but it's an odd and seemingly wrongheaded one for a troupe that clearly revels in the right of free speech. And, as is often the case with art, it's neater and tidier than real life. It also happens to be one of the only neat aspects of this overly long, overly self-indulgent, albeit well-meaning, production. This company has a mother lode of talent, but it needs to mine the gold and discard the rest.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Abbie/Other Works of Art/Lee"

Where: Towson Marketplace, 1238 Putty Hill Road

When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m through Dec. 18

Tickets: $7

Call: (410) 235-6297

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