Festivals deliver a script of substance, a bit of fluff

CRITIC'S CORNER

Two groups open 25th seasons with diverse shows

Theater column

June 29, 2006|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Two local summer theater festivals kicked off their silver anniversary seasons last weekend with shows that could not be more different. One is frothy, the other fraught with levels of meaning.

Laura Ridgeway's Turn Your Head and Kafka -- a complex examination of love, oppression, injustice, absurdity and Franz Kafka -- got the 25th annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival off to an impressive start.

Interweaving excerpts from the Czech writer's unfinished novel, The Trial, with text from his correspondence with journalist Milena Jesenska, Ridgeway has created a layered script in which fact and fiction comment on each other.

Like the protagonist in The Trial, the character Ridgeway calls "Kafka" (Brian Oakes) wakes up to find himself under arrest "not only in innocence but also in ignorance." Meanwhile, off to one side of the stage -- and occasionally interacting with the characters caught up in the trial -- Julia Brandeberry's excellent, intensely concerned Milena writes and receives Kafka's letters.

As the epistolary section of the play mirrors and intersects with Kafka's legal nightmare, it appears that, metaphorically, what's on trial is everything from Kafka's health to his romance with Milena, who insists she loves her husband and Kafka, too. Kafka is powerless in dealing with the "organization" that arrests him, and he is equally powerless in dealing with his physical and emotional health.

Directed by Jenny Tibbels, Run of the Mill Theater's production uses nonrealistic touches to emphasize the irrationality of Kafka's predicament. The actors -- besides the leads, six others play multiple roles -- sometimes speak in unison; at other times, they talk over each other cacophonously.

With the exception of Milena's typewriter, which remains on stage throughout, props are rare; instead, the supporting cast relies heavily on mime (often unintelligibly and rather preciously). In this uneven ensemble, however, Eric Berryman, a Baltimore School for the Arts student, distinguishes himself by displaying admirable range, particularly in his transformation into Kafka's elderly, ailing lawyer.

As for Kafka, Oakes portrays him with very little affect. Even when he's supposed to be growing sicker, his illness is barely perceptible. This Kafka is almost a cipher, a cog in a bureaucratic wheel, to be used or abused at will. Though a defensible way to depict a powerless character, it's not the most compelling choice.

Still, Turn Your Head and Kafka is a challenging, intelligent script -- despite its weak, punning title. And, more often than not, Tibbels' production succeeds in meeting its challenges.

"Turn Your Head and Kafka" continues through July 8 at the McManus Theater at Loyola College, 4501 N. Charles St. Tickets are $15. Call 410-796-1555 or visit runofthemilltheater.org.

A play on hair

A few miles north, Beehive -- a revue created by Larry Gallagher in tribute to female pop singers of the '60s -- has launched Towson University's Maryland Arts Festival on an enjoyably nostalgic note. Six singers, accompanied by an onstage band, perform three dozen golden oldies ranging from the silly "Name Game" to Janis Ian's protest song, "Society's Child."

The performers alternate between playing themselves and impersonating pop legends. Standouts include Denine Wilson's depictions of Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin, Joanna Chilcoat's Leslie Gore and Elizabeth Ruddy's Janis Joplin (with notable vocal calisthenics in "Ball and Chain"). But it's Robin Rouse's perpetual-motion Tina Turner who really rocks the house.

Director/choreographer Leslie Owens-Harrington gives the ladies slickly synchronized dance moves, which they execute with style. And with three giant 45's serving as platforms, set designer Gregg Hillmar wittily travels back to a time when records, like hairdos, were anything but compact.

"Beehive" continues through July 16 at Towson University's Center for the Arts, Osler and Cross Campus drives. Tickets are $25. Call 410-704-2787 or visit towson.edu/maf.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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