The Stare Master
In the first half of Dan Hurlin’s two-part toy-theater piece, Everyday Uses for Sight: Nos. 3 & 7 (the Kitchen), a 10-year-old boy precociously holds forth on the subject of architecture. Though he lives at a landmark-worthy address designed by his famous grandfather, he’s more fascinated by the suburban tract house of his martini-sloshing neighbors. A miniature replica of this green, shingled two-story makes clear that the kid’s real attraction is to the owner—a man whose personal aesthetic (black turtleneck, sideburns, Corvette) suggests high testosterone rather than good taste. It’s not long before the boy trades his blueprints for a pair of binoculars, peering into the man’s bedroom window while mechanically reciting descriptions of Greek and Roman columns. Floating on the riffs of Roy Nathanson’s sax, Hurlin’s lyrical (though too elliptical) production explores the way desire shapes how and what we see.
In the richer second half, the presumably gay adolescent compulsively repeats to himself a list of French impressionists to block out the derisive name-calling surrounding him. So much have art books and paintings provided an early shelter that by the time puberty hits he can already tell the difference between a de Kooning and a Pollock. As the boy’s examination of contemporary masterpieces begins to take a phallic turn, a blind accordionist (played by composer Guy Klucevsek) asks what he’s looking at. Posed as a threat, the question underscores the way that fear of budding sexuality drives the boy to understand the means by which artists transform their often terrified vision into something miraculous. Hurlin’s meditative collage assures that the youngster, too, will one day master a similar kind of theatrical alchemy. —Charles McNulty
Bugging Out of the Bughouse
Three women escape the draconian grip of a New York mental institution and take off cross-country to find freedom, adventure, and a redemptive river surging somewhere in the wilderness of Wyoming. The story would seem to beg for some serious cinematography—sweeping vistas and letterboxed landscapes all amplified by restless editing and a driving rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, like Thelma & Louise meets Girl, Interrupted. 78th Street Theatre Lab’s Wyoming, however, consists of just four chairs, a few suggestive props, and a lone cellist camped out at the edge of the stage. A challenge indeed, to be so spartan in bringing Wyoming to life. But cast in the lead of this play, written by Catherine Gillet and directed by creative director Eric Nightengale, is the incomparable Marylouise Burke, winner of a Drama Desk Award for her performance in Fuddy Meers.
Boundless in energy, Burke careens through all manner of emotions as delusional Sheila, the oldest of the three, whose husband committed her against her will. Rosalyn Coleman weighs in sassy and tough-mouthed as Jasmine, whose wild years have left her paranoid. And Camilla Enders’s Annie, locked up since she was a little girl, is so fragile and wide-eyed it hurts.
Together the women beat a painful path through the tangled mess of the so-called real world. But as Tennessee Williams once said, this wilderness is all internal. The characters may be burning through state after state, but their movements dig further and further inside their own mental territories. Thank god Wyoming boasts the acting talent to make its vague plot so visceral. The impressionistic fragments of each woman’s story, the tragedies alluded to but never explored, disintegrate into a tangled mess toward the play’s end. But watching Burke pull all these threads together is to witness a moment of true clairvoyance. —Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
Let’s Make a Duel
The In-Gathering (the Duke) suffers from split-personality disorder. The first half of the New Professional Theatre’s fledgling musical is a well-intentioned African American historical drama. The second half aspires to a tearjerker à la Andrew Lloyd Webber. The first half’s more noble, the second more fun.
The story: While pregnant with her husband January’s child, Annie Jewel gets sold off the plantation where they are slaves. After the war comes, the stalwart January hits the road to find her. He finally does—in New Orleans, where she’s the kept woman of a rich and cruel black Creole. An expert swordsman, this villain challenges January to a duel for Annie Jewel.
The play, created by writer John Henry Redwood and composer Daryl Waters, does a service in retrieving a nearly forgotten Reconstruction Era episode: the “in-gathering,” during which thousands of former slaves roamed the South searching for lost members of their families. As January treks across states, he meets many other such seekers. One looks for siblings with an initial carved in their foot by a prescient father; another asks about a man with a broken foot. The play would be richer if it had more such details.
Instead, The In-Gathering‘s first act is mostly stilted dialogue delivered by one-dimensional characters and music lightly seasoned with gospel. The second act jumps into Phantom of the Opera mode. Waters provides a few tuneful songs, and sweet-voiced Kimberly Jajuan offers some effective musical histrionics as Annie Jewel. Maybe a tight budget explains the under- produced staging: Voices and instruments seem too small to fill the stage. But if this piece has commercial ambitions, it’ll need more than big bucks—and big names. —Francine Russo