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IU, Sapphire Co. theater productions falter

November 3, 2008

This week, two attempts at stage bawdiness come up short.

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Sapphire Theatre Co.'s first production, an adaptation of Aristophanes' "Lysistrata," has the coolest programs I've seen in a long time. These ring-bound cards feature not just the show's groovy poster and the requisite supportive ads and donor list, but also genuinely funny cast bios, including turn-ons and turn-offs for its sizable company.

These actors, unlike many you'd find on area stages, are paid. Part of Sapphire's mission is to help create an environment here in Indy in which professional thespians can earn "livable wages."

Applause all around for that goal. The more paid jobs there are for actors here, the better the acting pool is likely to become. The launch of a handful of professional theaters over the last few years is a positive sign for the city and, on average, a plus for audience members.

In this case, though, I just wish the actors were given more than a paycheck. Specifically, I wish they had stronger material to work with — material that didn't leave them awkwardly stranded on their minimalist, single-set stage. "Lystrania"' has long been the go-to play for producers who want to demonstrate that anti-war sentiments go back a long way. It's served a similar purpose for feminism. Written in 411 B.C., the play concerns a group of women who band together to stop a war by withholding sex from their warrior husbands and taking over the treasury. Productions around the globe have found ways to make it work for contemporary audiences — often, involving accentuating the sex, which Sapphire purports to do. (Its posters feature an A-for-Adult rating and warning of "sexual innuendo, strong language and heightened states of arousal.) But the alleged raciness of the show—toga raising erections and all—seems neutered. None of what happens on stage is likely to feel even remotely scandalous to anyone who has seen so much as a TBS-edited rerun of "Sex in the City." The result is more like having your aunt tell you a series of dirty jokes, occasionally dropping in a political cliche or two. Fun? No. Insightful? Not really. Awkward? Yep.

The cast is often stuck standing around, with little to do. Some try gamely to make some sort of connection with their fellow performers. Others seem to be just waiting around for their next line.

 It didn't have to be this way. The Circle Centre mall venue serves its purpose. The tech side is professional. And the new company clearly has some smarts behind it. But as liberally adapted by company heads Bonnie Mill and David Orr and directed by Mill, this "Lysistrata" comes across as a mid-level Fringe Fest show stretched to nearly double its ideal size. Yes, I complained last week about the too-short "Macbeth" at Indiana Repertory Theatre. Now it's a too-long "Lysistrata." That's not inconsistency — it's acknowledging that every show has its "fighting weight." This one's about 45 minutes.

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Sexuality was also center stage at Indiana University Theatre's production of Andrew Lippa's off-Broadway musical "The Wild Party" (Oct. 24-Nov. 1), based on the Prohibition-era poem by Joseph Moncure March. Key body parts remained covered (barely), but simulated sex proved a core element in this gritty lust-and-violence tale.

The party-throwers are Queenie, a vaudeville dancer, and her lover Burrs, a clown, whose relationship is defined by the quality of their sex. Sparks are meant to fly when prostitute Kate, who has a thing for Burrs, arrives with Mr. Black, a guy who arouses interest in Queenie.

The primary problem is the material itself. Lippas has penned some terrific songs for his "Party." Kate (the suitably harrowing Lovlee Carroll) gets a lively entrance number, "Look at Me Now" and the high-energy dance craze tune "juggernaut" followed closely by "Wild, Wild Party" certainly get the adrenaline flowing. But the show falters when focusing on the main characters, who are richer in March's poem.

The attempt at introspection in songs such as "Maybe I Like it This Way" and the would-be climactic "How Did We Come to This?"are as trite as their titles. Supporting characters are introduced in song, but Lippa's interest in them seems to drop quickly in favor of the ciphers at the center.

Granted, a poem is a tricky thing to biggie-size into a full-scale musical. Don't get me wrong. I'm a believer that source material needs to be just that: source material. If something doesn't work in translating original material to the stage, by all means, make changes. But if you're going to alter a fundamental element —you'd better have a very good reason.

In the poem, the party arises out of a destructive game between Queenie and Burrs. In the musical, it's her attempt to humiliate him after a rape. Big difference. And one that leaves us thinking "Just leave the bastard," instead of compelling us to care about this all-night lust/hate dance.

Still, director/choreographer George Pinney (who also choreographed the Indiana-to-Broadway production of "Blast!") and the ace design team remind us of a key reason theatergoers should frequent college theater: It's where some of our area's most creative professionals do their thing. While I take issue with the writing, the production itself was never short of solidly professional.

Upcoming at IU Theatre: a November "Hamlet," a December "Marisol," a Spring "Oklahoma!" and more. Even bigger news: Legendary composer Stephen Sondheim will be engaging in on-stage dialogue with former New York Times critic Frank Rich in an April event. You can bet I'll be hitting the road to Bloomington a number of times in upcoming months. For IU Theatre info, visit www.theatre.indiana.edu.

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This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming events to lharry@ibj.com. Visit ibj.com/arts for additional reviews, previews and art discussions.

 

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