The dark side of TV-wired America pays off in 'White Money'

April 29, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

On the same night Richard Nixon was laid to rest, audiences at "White Money" heard a Federal Defense System broadcast, including Bert the Turtle's sprightly rendition of "Duck and Cover." It was an ironic confluence of events -- the funeral of a former foe of communism taking place at the same time theatergoers were listening to a golden oldie from the Cold War hit parade.

It is as good an indication as any of the inherently American flavor of Julie Jensen's "White Money," which is receiving its East Coast premiere at the Theatre Project in a Splitting Image Theatre Company production directed by Cindy Croot.

The Americanness of this surrealistic comedy is one of its few concrete elements. Besides "Duck and Cover" and various commercial jingles and TV theme songs, the show is brimming with such totems of American culture as professional wrestling, TV evangelism and trailer parks -- the latter resonant with the feel of the cowboy-playwright Sam Shepard.

The plot of "White Money" is considerably less concrete. To the contrary, it seems like a dream, or more accurately a nightmare, recounted by a young woman named Ella. She is played by Felicia Shakman with a combination of sweetness, wide-eyed youthfulness and an intelligence that easily surpasses the limitations of the other characters.

Nothing ever happens to her, Ella complains, as she narrates the routine events of her life in a Nevada trailer park with her trucker husband (Jeff Roberts), whose rare days off are spent guzzling beer and watching wrestling on TV.

But something does happen to Ella in the half-dozen scenes that make up "White Money." For starters, she is visited by her husband's tattooed girlfriend, a devotee of a TV evangelist for whom Ella has even less respect than she does for TV wrestlers. As played by jeans-and-leather-clad Marietta Hedges, this "other" woman drinks vodka and chocolate syrup, and Hedges makes her wacky and threatening enough to convince you that she not only enjoys this concoction but that you wouldn't have the nerve to turn down a swig if she offered it.

As Ella's adventures continue, she leaves her husband; visits her mother (Bethany Brown); takes a job as a waitress; winds up in a motel room, wrestling with a husband-and-wife tag team called Killer Bovine and Seattle (also played by Roberts and Hedges); and, in the final scene, is televised doing a strip tease in front of a live audience while imitating Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday, Mr. President."

To add to the offbeat nature of the proceedings, Ella often quotes dialogue just before -- and sometimes after -- it is spoken, which enhances the dreamlike, deja-vu quality of the time

sequence.

The danger of television is a theme repeatedly expressed by Ella, who ends up a victim of the tube herself. Parallels are also drawn between Killer Bovine and the TV evangelist, each of whom is called "the greatest man on Earth," and each of whom is equally phoney.

Trying to forge an identity in the midst of these competing and corrupting influences seems to be at the heart of Ella's journey. "White Money" isn't concerned with reaching the end of that journey, but with pointing out the obstacles along the way.

"White Money" is a major departure for Splitting Image, which previously devoted itself to original, collaborative work dealing with social and psychological issues. Using an existing script for the first time, the company acquits itself admirably, but the result lacks the deeply felt, visceral edge of Splitting Image's earlier one-of-a-kind creations.

"White Money"

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; through May 8

Tickets: $14

Call: (410) 752-8558

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