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A&E: Oz, Aussies and the oversized

June 4, 2007

Henry Arthur Jones' more-than-100-year-old quote referred to dramatists, not critics. But his words seem a good guide for this column, where I'll be coaxing excellence by watching everything I possibly can, attempting to lure you to the stuff that excels and serving as your guide to the sometimes confusing array of possibilities Indy offers.

And I plan on having a good time doing it. I hope you'll have as good a time reading.

Sparks flew 40 years ago when Sidney Poitier was introduced to his future in-laws in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." But Neil LaBute's play "Fat Pig" demonstrates that, in our calorie-obsessed age, an interracial romance won't raise nearly as many eyebrows as the pairing of an imminently eligible guy and a plus-sized woman.

Armed with such discuss-it-in-the-car-on-the-way-home subject matter, "Fat Pig" pairs zaftig librarian Helen with relationship-challenged Tom, asking whether love can survive with a better half who's bigger by half.

My first, er, beef about the local premiere at the Phoenix Theatre is the spare lunch counter set, which doesn't effectively establish the crowded conditions that force the pair's initial encounter. Furthermore, the original New York production opened on Helen eating ... and eating ... and eating, leading the audience to make judgments even before Tom entered. The Phoenix ignores this confrontational touch. (OK, so it's not in the script. Still.)

Blame LaBute, though, for asking us to believe that the antsy Tom would take a bathing-suited Helen to a beach party and, in proximity to the people whose opinions he most fears, stage an emotional confrontation. Sorry. Didn't buy it.

The middle scenes, though, make this production worthwhile. Here, love grows, but so does the pressure on Tom to come to societal senses. All well played, although a younger Helen and a toner Tom would have accentuated the drama.

The most (forgive me) well-rounded performance comes from Angela Plank as Tom's co-worker/former girlfriend. The Phoenix wisely avoided casting a knockout in the roll "Felicity"-famed Keri Russell played off-Broadway. Plank is stunned rather than stunning as a woman living in fear that she's just a few Little Debbies or missed Pilates classes away from being "like that."

For the more risk-averse, Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre is staging "The Wizard of Oz." It's difficult to begrudge this for-profit theater its conservative choices. But would it kill a local company to mix it up once in a while and take a shot at "The Wiz" instead of this overdone version?

Still, this trip down the yellow bricks contains enough nonmovie material to keep even Oz-ophiles alert, including the cut-from-the-film number "The Jitterbug" and familiar songs with unfamiliar intros (including "Over the Rainbow"). As in "Fat Pig," though (didn't think I could connect them, did you?), it suffers from casting a lead who comes across as too old. Without Dorothy's youthful grounding, it's difficult for yet another production of "The Wizard of Oz" to feel fresh.

From Oz to Aussies: Two Down Under artists finished a two-week visit to Indy last Friday as part of BITE, The Butler International Theatre Exchange. The resulting one-nightonly show consisted of videotaped improvisations (worked on over a two-week span with Butler students) and some spontaneous live work. Not quite a satisfying evening of theater for those unconnected to the program, but, for the future of arts in the city-and Butler's reputation as a hub for theatrical creativity-it's a program to be applauded.



Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.
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