Do not be fooled by the traditional "re" in the spelling of Confluence Theatre. Its current work, Durang vs. Ives, running July 13 through 23 at the Blue Heron Arts Center, features four one-act plays by Christopher Durang and David Ives and thus speaks little to theatrical tradition. It does, however, speak to theater that is fun, energetic and innovative.
If you are a hardened theatrical purist, to put it quite simply, you will dislike the production. As the title suggests, Durang vs. Ives is themed as a boxing event. The set is a boxing ring, and every play is accompanied by ringside commentary that precedes and follows it. The ringside commentators are Tim Lamplight (Brian Ferdman), a Marv Albert spoof; Barry Lurchant (Gerrard Spencer), a McCarthyite; and Tha Dogg Prophet (Jasha Godschilde), an aspiring rap artist. At the end, three random members of the audience decide who is the better playwright. Everything about the show defies convention.
For the most part, these senseless acts of innovation are most welcome. The boxing theme, for example, set the tone for the material--funny, playful, lighthearted. The material seemed tailor-made for a group of actors who seem to specialize in slapstick comedy.
This is not to say that the humor of Durang and Ives--or, for that matter, the group of actors who play the play--is cheap or hollow. As anyone familiar with the work of these playwrights knows, they are intelligent, and their plays are full of insightful meaning. In David Ives' Foreplay Or: The Art of the Fugue, three characters, all named Chuck (Todd E. Betker, Jeffrey Urquhart, and Anthony Bishop), take their dates, Amy, Annie, and Alma (Janelle Baker, Autumn Ayers, and Meghan Heimbecker), mini-golfing. The action that follows is like a musical fugue: A series of hilarious dating mishaps is introduced by the first pair, with the other pairs following contrapuntally.
In addition, both the title and the theme are full of meaning and double-entendre. Perhaps the most obvious pun is on "foreplay," which, in the play's context, refers both to actual foreplay and to their game of mini-golf. Ives recognizes that foreplay begins at the first impression: The first Chuck may say a line that flatters Amy, but is offensive to Annie, when Chuck II delivers it identically. What Chuck II's date finds incredibly witty, Alma, Chuck III's date, finds commonplace and dull, and so forth.
The three male actors--as well as costume designer Fang-Yi Tsen--are clearly skilled at imitation, and they work wonderfully to portray the characters as prototypical, awkward men trying to get their dates into bed. The three actresses skillfully establish their distinct personalities, heightening the humor by starkly contrasting the men. While the women are in complete control of their senses, the men are in a psychological fugue, going through motions they believe is right for them at the time, but will not remember in the morning. Foreplay provides a hilarious and intelligent commentary on the "dating game" and "battle of the sexes"--and it is like a song that is simultaneously beautiful, artistic, and incredibly stupid.
The play-by-play commentary from Tha Dogg Prophet on this piece: "Those white boys took their dates mini-golfing to get laid?" This is typical of the non-Durang-or-Ives dialogue interpolated into the evening as written by Brian Ferdman. Other notable dialogue includes scathing remarks about Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rent, Wendy Wasserstein, and Broadway. The tone of the blocking, as co-directed by Todd E. Betker and Jason Fleece, is best illustrated by the overweight drag queen in a tutu who introduces every "round" of action, thus spoofing the bikini-clad models of professional boxing. Ferdman's writing, in short, will make purists croak; it made the opening night audience and me laugh, however.
In fact, this distaste for theatrical elitism is precisely the theme of Christopher Durang's The Stye of the Eye, directed by Adam Bernstein. The only thing notable about this play's plot is its incomprehensibility. The lead character, Jake (Andre Marerro), can be best described as a stereotypical "redneck" with a split-personality disorder. The action begins when Jake confesses to his "Ma" (Fayth Bailey) that he thinks--he is not sure, mind you--that he has murdered his wife, Beth (Darren Focareta). This concept is probably the least bizarre of the piece. Soon, the audience discovers his motive: Beth's horrible performance in an even more incomprehensible melodrama. To further detail the storyline would be superfluous; suffice it to say, it is wonderfully odd.
The Stye of the Eye satirizes the innate desire to label as "art" anything that defies explanation. Durang's symbol for this theme is an artichoke, over which a psychotic character, Wesley (David Lillich), obsesses. Wesley declares, "You can't spell artichoke without three words: art...choke...ih!," pronouncing the last syllable as a schwa. The cast of this play--including Dr. Dysart (Carol Hickey), Meg (Colleen Shely), and Mae (Robin Rundquist), heretofore unmentioned--deliver the over-the-top performances necessary for this spoof. Marerro and Hickey are particular standouts.
The remaining plays are simple and very amusing. In Ives' The Philadelphia, also directed by Adam Bernstein, Mark (Brian Barefoot) is frantic because he cannot seem to find anything that he wants. Newsstands only carry esoteric publications, delicatessens stop serving burgers--in short the world's gone mad. Not to worry, his friend Al (Brett Kennedy) advises, he is merely trapped in "a Philadelphia." All Philadelphians, he asserts, suffer his problem. His proof: "Who would actually want a cheesesteak?"
Al, meanwhile, has his own problems. He lost his job; his wife left him for another man, but he is still calm, cool, and collective. The reason? He is in "a Los Angeles." And besides being funny and absurd, the play satirizes people's tendencies to adopt the characteristics of their surroundings. Barefoot and Kennedy accurately play the typical crabby Philadelphian and capricious LA resident on target, skillfully reinforcing the theme.
The final play, For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, directed by Todd E. Betker, is a hilarious parody of Tennessee Williams' autobiographical The Glass Menagerie. In this parody, the homosexuality of Tom (Jason Fleece), only hinted at in Williams' version, is played with full, stereotypical force. Laura, Tom's introverted sister, is now his mentally-challenged brother Lawrence (Jeffrey Urquhart), while Lawrence's gentleman suitor is now Ginny (Jasonta Roberts), who is partially deaf.
The parody is biting and intelligent, although the acting was not up to the standards of the other plays--with the exception of Baker and Roberts, who gave fine performances. After all, a limp wrist and high-pitched voice does not a stereotypical gay man make. This confusion made Fleece's performance as Tom appear somewhat half-hearted. To play his mentally challenged character, Urquhart seemed to fall into an Adam Sandler imitation. While most of the audience found it funny, I would have preferred for him to find the humor within his character and not his own comedic abilities. These performances were also disappointing because their work was much better in Foreplay.
My only other complaint about Durang vs. Ives concerns the two audience judges who voted for Ives. Durang was clearly funnier.