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A&E: Local duo creates sticker shock

April 7, 2008

Anyone with young kids knows the value of a sticker. Whether a reward for a hissy-fit-free afternoon or a gift from a friendly grocery bagger, a sticker is a deceptively simple object that brings a surprising amount of pleasure.

I'll admit, I didn't give stickers a whole lot of thought until I wandered into Alias, the unique Fountain Square gallery created by Dave and Holly Combs. The couple has been obsessed with stickers since spotting-and pondering the implications of-an "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" sticker affixed all over Manhattan. The bit of guerilla art raised all sorts of issues about culture and society. And it inspired the couple to explore the possibilities of stickers as art.

Flash forward a few years. Not only has the couple opened a gallery. Not only have they launched a magazine. But they also have a book built from that magazine, which is being released this week.

"Peel: The Art of the Sticker" ($27.95, Mark Batty Publishers) isn't just a colorful catalogue. It does something that few Hoosier arts efforts do: Stake a claim on uncharted-but-well-worth-exploring territory. "Peel" presents a wide range of sticker artists, from the sweetly alien creatures of olive47 to wooden cigarettes of N/plywood. (You quickly get used to the non-name names of the artists and collectives responsible for the work.) Far from being an American phenomenon, "Peel" reveals work from Singapore to South Africa.

Is stickering akin to graffiti? I'd argue yes. But the sticker artists interviewed in the book seem to accept the transient nature of their work more than graffiti artists do (there is some over- lap between the two groups). Where graf- fiti painters seem to be screaming "I am here!," the sticker artist seems content with accenting the world.

Approve or not, it's a fascinating phenomenon and it's exciting to have its hub/clearinghouse here in Indy. Take a look at the book. Stop by the gallery. You'll find yourself looking more closely at metal light poles and boarded-up buildings in the future.

And, yes, the book contains stickers-eight fun, thought-provoking pages of them.

The groundbreaking Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical "Show Boat" inspires grandiosity when bloated budget and sizable space allow. The last tour to come through Indianapolis, for instance, seemed packed with bodies, while remaining fairly lifeless.

When those resources aren't available, though, something else happens. Handled properly, "Show Boat" becomes less of a spectacle and more of an intriguing, melancholy look at how, somehow, despite all odds, life keeps rolling along.

I won't pretend that Beef & Boards' production (running through May 11) is revelatory. But I will say that in its relative simplicity, in its respect for the music, and in its restraint, B&B's "Show Boat" felt surprisingly modern. It came across less as an old-fashioned tuner and more as a musical play that understands how fashions change.

Am I reading too much into it? Perhaps. But even if it doesn't strike you as remotely profound, an evening that includes Elizabeth Broadhurt singing "Bill" and Gerald Atkins not just singing but living "Ol' Man River" is a pretty satisfying one.

Flipping through the annual anthologies for sale in the lobby of Actors Theatre of Louisville, I was surprised to realize that I haven't been to ATL's Humana Festival of New American Plays since 2000.

A bad, bad move, considering that some of the most memorable, engrossing and impeccably produced theater I've seen since moving to the Midwest has been at the fest: The original production of "Dinner with Friends," which would later win a Pulitzer. The eye-popping craziness of Anne Bogart's "Going, Going, Gone." The dish-smashing act-one finale of Jane Martin's "Jack and Jill." Even, outside the theater, the giddiness of a play where the actors sat in the front seat of a car and the audience-three at a time-sat in the back.

I could go on and on.

For the uninitiated, the Humana Festival (which ran through March 30) is one of the most prominent new-play festivals in the country. Each year, a half dozen or so full-length plays, plus a quartet of shorts, are staged over the course of a month. Pick your schedule with care and you could see them all in a weekend-and people do. The ATL lobby is usually filled with patrons of all stripes comparing notes on what they've seen.

Yes, there are duds. But when you swing for the fences, you increase your chances of striking out. That's why I usually recommend that visitors to the fest plan on taking in at least three shows.

That's what I did on a Saturday jaunt at the tail end of this year's fest.

The first production, "This Beautiful City" was a collage-like consideration of the impact of the evangelical movement on Colorado Springs. Sound dry? Far from it. Built from interview transcripts with a wide range of residents, the play proved moving, disturbing, funny, and even toe-tapping. Its primary flaw: Once New Life Church pastor Ted Haggard's indiscretions are exposed (which serendipitously happened midresearch on the play), "This Beautiful City" meanders awhile before regaining its footing. A minor complaint for a strong and-dare I say it-educational piece of theater.

This year's selection of 10-minute plays, a Humana Fest tradition, felt more obligatory than entertaining or insightful. Since none are likely to be heard from again, I'll save the ink here. Instead, I'll celebrate the third piece of the day.

Knowing nothing about the play or playwright Gina Gionfriddo, I felt something akin to a blind-date participant when I walked into "Becky Shaw." That was appropriate, since the play focuses on the ramifications of a blind date.

In this case, a woman and her husband set up her cynical best guy friend with a seemingly desirable co-worker of the hubby. Arriving dressed to the nines and with hair done up for an event, the woman has clearly invested more in the evening than any of the other characters. And that investment triggers a series of actions that challenge, define and shake up everyone involved.

It's a comedy, this "Becky Shaw," and in the hands of ATL, it's a gut-splitting one where small gestures earned as loud a reaction as sharp one-liners. But the play never loses track of its serious underpinnings, never betrays character and never stops subtly raising questions about our responsibilities toward and expectations of other people.

I attended the Humana Festival on a weekend where a sizable percentage of the audience was comprised of theater producers from around the country on the hunt for future material. Don't be surprised if "Becky Shaw" is on the lineup at a theater near you in 2010. I have no doubt I'll see it again, although I'd be asking a lot to expect later productions to be this well-performed, well-directed and well-designed.

With offerings like this, the drive to Louisville is a minor inconvenience.
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