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A&E: Scorned women on stages at IU and Fountain Square

October 29, 2007

Perhaps the most performed American opera, "Susannah" tells of a good woman brought down by the hypocrisy of her Appalachian town. Spotted bathing nude in a creek by townspeople looking for a spot for revival meeting baptisms, the parentless 19-year-old's reputation and spirit are soon destroyed by gossip-and the visiting preacher. It's an opera with sex (implied), death (thanks to an angry brother), religion (including a revival service) and-something you don't see in many operas-square dancing.

What it also has in IU Opera's production (closing Oct. 27) is solid musicianship, a lead effectively sung and acted by former Miss Indiana Betsy Ushkrat (alternating performances in this double-cast show with Susannah Polk) and problematic design. The issue? The lovely, detailed sets require far too much time to move on and off stage. This means that silent scenes have been tacked on to occur in front of the curtain, deadening the pace of the show. Being snapped out of the urgency of the material a few times each act severely diminishes its impact. And "Susannah" needs the ratcheting up of tension in order for the finale to work emotionally.

As it is, this "Susannah" is a production to be admired more than one to be fully engaged by. Still, if you are starved for opera (Indianapolis Opera only stages three shows this season), IU Opera is well worth the drive. Upcoming productions include a new staging of "La Boheme" in November (for you kids out there, that's the old-school version of "Rent") and the college premiere of William Bolcom's "A Wedding," based on the Robert Altman film, in February.

When a program says that a new theater company is an outreach program of a church, you'd be excused for thinking of nativity plays, "Godspell" and other bringing-Scripture-to-life pageants.

Well, The Theater Within, an outreach program of Fountain Square's The Church Within, is doing something I never thought I'd see in a church: Offering up a production of a Neil LaBute play.

In case the name is new to you, LaBute, a former Fort Wayne resident, is the force behind such films as "In the Company of Men" and "Nurse Betty." His lightening-rodfor-controversy plays, including the recent "Fat Pig" and "The Mercy Seat," have cemented his reputation as a playwright with acid in his keystrokes. After "Bash: Latter-Day Plays" premiered off Broadway, LaBute was disciplined by the Mormon Church, of which he was until recently a member. Now the work is being performed in a house of worship. I think he'd be pleased.

"Bash" is LaBute's reputation boiled down to its essence. In each of its three separate one-act plays, a character is introduced sympathetically. If you aren't charmed by them, you'll at least recognize them as, in the title of one of LaBute's films, "your friends and neighbors." But then cracks begin to show-moments where you realize that something bad is or has happened. And then your worst expectations get lapped by LaBute's imagination.

In other words: You think it's bad, but it proves worse.

Whether you find value in sitting through these tales is a very personal matter. Carrie Schlatter Schwer, Jeremy Grimmer and Erin Cohenour give three (actually four, Grimmer has two roles) solid performances and the minimal direction and design for the most part plays up rather than minimizes the confrontational nature of these supernatural-free horror stories. The writing is clear and compelling. But there isn't much dramatic contrast between the three independent works. (I wasn't surprised later to find out that other productions of "Bash" have offered the plays in a different order.)

I suspect that the plays were overpraised originally because of the star power attached. It's one thing to see Carrie Schlatter Schwer, a relatively unknown but immensely talented local actress, telling an ugly story of her complicated relationship with the teacher who molested, romanced, impregnated and abandoned her when she was 14. It's another to have Calista Flockhart, the then red-hot star of Ally McBeal, telling the story. That doesn't make either production better or worse necessarily, just a different experience. There's a distancing that recognizable stars bring to material. Your experience isn't just experiencing the play, its being in the presence of a "name," and audiences bring a People magazine full of associations to the table.

At The Theatre Within, seated in a folding chair, facing a thinly disguised altar, and being pulled into each harrowing tale, you don't have the benefit of celebrity to soften the painful blow of each story. But without that "event" component, you are not out of line in asking yourself, "Why am I putting myself through this?"

I skipped the post-show discussion (there's one after each performance) but now I'm regretting that a bit. Despite the ugliness of "Bash," I left the theater wondering how much there really is to discuss, content-wise, in LaBute's play. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in any theater audience across the country who would argue that gay-bashing, child molesting and infanticide (subjects that "Bash" dives into) are OK. Or that those who commit such crimes couldn't be the person next to you on the airplane, across the table at the parent-teacher conference or in a pew in front of you at church.

Despite its structural redundancies, I'm glad I witnessed "Bash," not just to see the early work of a now major playwright working out his themes, but also to see a promising new company take its first steps.

It's also good to see that this new theater has a clear mission. The Theater Within is dedicated to staging work that ignites dialogue. Upcoming shows in its gutsy first season are "The Laramie Project," the celebrated oral-history play about the Matthew Shepard murder case, "Imagining Brad," which concerns itself with a woman married to an armless, legless blind man, LaBute's "This is How It Goes," a look at interracial romance, and "Wit," which explores our society's treatment of cancer patients.

If the group can bring these pieces to life with the same talent and commitment it brought to "Bash," then adventurous Indianapolis theater audiences could find themselves with a lot to talk about.
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