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A&E: What the butler saw, heard and felt

April 14, 2008

At times, "Looking Over the President's Shoulder" (at Indiana Repertory Theatre through May 3) feels less like a play and more like a very good afterdinner speech.

The speaker in this one-man show, penned by IRT playwrightin-residence James Still, certainly is worth listening to. He's Alonzo Fields, an Indiana native who spent 21 years as a butler in the White House, serving four administrations. A humble, hardworking man, Fields has snippets to share - about Churchill's nude swimming habits, Errol Flynn's obnoxiousness, FDR's private reaction to the Pearl H a r b o r attack- but while he may walk (and work in) the corridors of power, he's not privy to much that would shock, surprise or help us better understand how the world works.

As to the man himself, as presented here, Fields did his job, did it well, and made sacrifices to do it. In that regard, more is made of his stalled musical career than of the missed time with family, including a sick wife.

It helps considerably that writer Still, actor David Alan Anderson and director Janet Allen seem to understand the difference between pride and boastfulness and between being humble and surrendering one's self-respect. In the process, they sketch a man we like and enjoy listening to-even if in the end we don't know him very well.

If you are still in a presidential mood, consider giving a read to Ray E. Boomhower's new book "Robert Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary" (Indiana University Press). Yes, it's a flat title. But Boomhower's meticulous research and smooth prose make for a highly readable "you-are-there" look at state and national politics in a turbulent year. Kennedy's famed speech on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination is here, of course, but so are page after page of lesser-known details.

Fascinating stuff, well worthy of attention beyond state lines, especially in a year when a presidential primary in Indiana once again means something.

Camp may be a couple of months off for many Indiana kids, but for grownups with an appreciation for giddy decadence, camp of a different kind is the order of the day at Theatre on the Square.

Its current show, "Die! Mommie! Die!" (running through April 26) is a camp romp about a murderous family centered by a has-been singer with a secret in her past. Playing the washedup titular chanteuse is Brent E. Marty, who has done his share of cross-dressing on stage, having played Frank N. Furter in "The Rocky Horror Show" and the title character in "Miss Gulch Returns."

The play comes from the pen of Charles Busch, best known for such over-the-top hits as "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" and "Psycho Beach Party." Done optimally, these sorts of shows are giddy fun. Done badly, they make you cringe. Whatever the case, they tend to have their own coating of armor. Be critical, and you're just uptight and/or don't get it.

Thankfully, TOTS' production of "D!M!D!" has enough spirit and talent to make it a fun, if not quite insistently recommendable, show. Erin Cohenour, one of the busiest actresses in town, has the requisite viciousness-and endless legs-as the Daddy-fixated daughter. Michael Fruzza offers a central-casting version of the driven movie producer with digestive issues. And, in a series of fun frocks, Brent Marty knows how to pose when the energy flags.

What "D!M!D!" could use is a firmer grounding in the 1960s period and a heightened sense of the blinders that each of these characters is wearing. The true masters of the campy arts know that charming self-absorption is just as important as exaggeration in making us care.

The play itself also is helped/hurt by a hilarious, surprising moment early in the second act that will have theater fans talking for years. (I'm not a fan of spoilers, so I'll keep it to myself.)

So what's wrong with that? Well, the moment is so well-executed that it's difficult not to be disappointed when the show doesn't escalate from there.
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