A Hectic Romp | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

A Hectic Romp

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(l to r) Kenneth McDade, James Wood and Richard Lawrence play construction workers telling tall tales in "Mere Mortals."

The art of theater is fleeting. You can't hang it on a gallery wall, and even that musty box of old playbills is at best poor mementos from long-struck shows. Every production occupies a brief moment in time, eliciting the joy unique to things that will soon be gone. Fondren Theatre Workshop, Jackson's own nomadic, permanent-buildingless guerilla theater troupe, takes that transient art to new levels.

The weekend of May 8-11, FTW will transform the lobby of Rainbow Co-op into its latest stage for a production of five short plays by contemporary American playwright David Ives. Collectively titled "All in the Timing," the one-acts highlight Ives' reputation for verbal virtuosity, boundless creativity and proclivity for mischief. The production is also an opportunity to showcase a new generation of FTWers, as it features many new actors as well as some inaugural directing debuts.

To kick it off, FTW co-founder John Howell directs a number of new recruits in "Variation on the Death of Trotsky," Ives' exhaustive study of the circumstances surrounding the revolutionary's demise. A series of brief reenactments scrutinize every word of an encyclopedia entry chronicling the tragedy. Each successive reinterpretation offers fresh insights, ultimately culminating in revelations no World Book would dare to print.

"Words, Words, Words," deftly folds several thematic layers into a short span of simian antics. Three monkeys (Milton, Swift and Kafka) sit at typewriters, charged by a human researcher with the hypothetical task of producing "Hamlet" through random key strikes. The audience is privy to the ape's own reflections on this popular statistical parlor-question. The result is a nuanced meditation on the craft of writing, punctuated by parodies of "Hamlet" and ruminations on the inequities suffered by an exploited literary monkey class. Jeff Menton, Miriam Lamar and Bonnie Grubbs balance their dual roles as both writers and apes, fusing lofty literary ambitions with old fashioned monkeying around.

"Universal Language," the show's highlight, and downright tender depiction of the secret language of lovers, showcases Ives' masterful wordplay as well as his nearly-romantic side. Dawn, a poor communicator, enrolls in the class of the similarly named Don, who has recently devised a universal language, "Unamunda." The new language incorporates a variety of human (and canine) dialects with a smattering of pop culture. (His introduction of "Velcro! Bell jar, Froyling, Harvardyu" translates to "Welcome, good day miss. How are you?") Dawn gradually catches on, and soon they learn to communicate—and ultimately consummate—in a passionate bout of semi-sensical banter.

The jargon of Unamunda is playful and brilliant, and leaves the audience following carefully so as not to miss a word. Actors Lesley Sheblak-Raybon and Brad Bishop smoothly navigate the tongue twisters and convincingly remind us that communication, no matter how silly, is a necessary requisite for love.

Another standout, "Mere Mortals," opens onto three construction workers from Jersey reveling in their scaffolding perch atop the Manhattan skyline. Breathing such rarefied air could even make a Jerseyman feel special. On their lunch break in the clouds, Charlie, Frank and Joe have only a short time to let their imaginations wander before the bell sends them back to work, and they make the best of it. Stellar performances by Kenneth McDade, James Wood and FTW veteran Richard Lawrence make the best of the crisp, wise-cracking dialogue and startling revelations.

The production concludes with "Mystery at Twicknam Vicarage," a "Masterpiece Theater"-inspired murder-mystery spoof that chronicles one man's downfall after spreading his love too thin. At the play's start, Jeremy Thumptington Fffiene's (played by Clif Kirkland) amorous affairs finally catch up with him as he lies motionless and bullet-pocked on the rug. His wife Mona (Jacqueline Wise), their dinner guests, the Penworthy-Pilks, and even the furniture are suspects. This cautionary tale reveals the danger of expressing appreciation through copulation, even if, after all, it was a very nice rug.

Watched in succession, the five shows constitute a hectic, hilarious romp through Ives' fertile imagination. The intimate setting at Rainbow Co-op draws the audience into the performance, while the brisk pacing and engrossing scripts make for an enjoyable evening that's over all too soon. Many of the FTW's new recruits show great promise, and afford new bragging rights to the troupe's already august ranks.

See "All in the Timing" May 8, 10 and 11, at 8 p.m. The May 9 show will follow Rainbow's "Dinner & A Movie," which begins at 7 p.m. $12, $10 for seniors and students. For information, call 601-982-2217.

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