Ian Pfister (front) and Zack Calhoon (back)
in You'll Have Had Your Hole
Ian Pfister (front) and Zack Calhoon (back)
in You'll Have Had Your Hole
You'll Have Had Your Hole

Most people know of Irvine Welsh from the film adaptation of his novel Trainspotting, but he is renowned in Scotland as a novelist of the macabre. Peevish critics from such publications as the conservative Daily Telegraph and the leftist Guardian slammed his first stage work, You'll Have Had Your Hole, for its graphic violence upon its premiere in Britain. Truth be told, the depiction of torture in the play isn't nearly as explicit as that found in the work of the late English playwright Sarah Kane or Irish scribe Martin McDonough; but neither is the writing nearly as good.

Like many of Welsh's works, You'll Have Had Your Hole concerns the criminal underbelly of Edinburgh. Two small-time gangsters, Docksey and Jinks, have captured a hit man called Dex to settle an old score; they have the bloke gagged and bound inside a soundproofed recording studio. Before you can spell controversy, various methods of torture ensue. Docksey seduces Dex's girlfriend and gives daily reports of his progress; the HIV-positive Jinks threatens to rape Dex and shows no signs of bluffing; and both take turns beating and taunting the captive, eventually forcing him to listen to lame music at deafening volumes.

Unlike the harder hitting Trainspotting, this play invokes the AIDS epidemic in way that seems cheaply provocative, and the glib portrayal of torture never registers the intended shocks -- especially not in the post-Saddam Hussein era. The staged bloodbaths in McDonough's The Lieutenant of Inishmore punctuated a cutting satire of the I.R.A. and the relentless punishment in Kane's Blasted shook audiences out of their complacency over war-torn Bosnia; in contrast, YHHYH seems more like a Quentin Tarantino movie with Scottish brogues.

Boomerang Theater Company makes good use of the flawed script, and director Francis Kuzler manages the matchbox performance space as best he can. Among the cast, only Ian Pfister completely convinces as Jinx with his dead on Scots accent. There are some other decent performances, but these actors would fare better in a play that hit closer to home.

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Fatwa

After penning The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie learned a new spin on a public relations cliché: Controversy sells, especially if it results in a fatwa from an Iranian Ayatollah. Khomeini's edict is the inspiration for an ingenious plot twist in Anuvab Pal's Fatwa!, presented by AlterEgo Productions.

In this dark comedy, a pair of struggling writers named Michael Jordan and Mohammad Ali (no relation) have trouble publishing their pretentious verse novels. Ali tries to raise money to send his tome to a printing company in Ireland, whereas Jordan's publisher that can barely push his work's distribution to double digits. When one of Jordan's manuscripts falls into the hands of a religious leader of a small-town-American mosque, the imam denounces the novel as blasphemous and puts a measly $4000 bounty on the writer's head. So Jordan comes up with a cunning scheme save his life and earn some cash for his friend: The pair will stage Jordan's murder on video.

This hilarious premise makes for a provocative first act, but the play begins to falter after intermission because of spotty acting and overwritten dialogue. At the performance I attended, actors Joe Jamrog and Jerry Matz stumbled on several of their lines. Pal over-explains several plot developments, and the figure of the publisher seems a mouthpiece of the play's themes rather than a credible character.

It's difficult to tell whether the acting, the direction, or the writing was most responsible for the show running a full half-hour over its advertised length -- a capitol offense by Fringe standards. Still, the professionalism, wit, and daring on abundant display during the first act make AlterEgo Productions a company to look out for.

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Gabrielle Kohen in Decoding the Tablecloth
Gabrielle Kohen in Decoding the Tablecloth
Decoding the Tablecloth

A Jewish Latina girl with roots in Poland and Argentina, Gabriela Kohen has a genealogy that's a culture studies professor's dream. It also makes for a poignant and riveting one-woman show as her detailed characterizations take us through decades and oceans of history in vivid strokes. Decoding the Tablecloth follows the Kohens from the Polish ghettoes to the mean streets of Brooklyn, and the audience is intimately acquainted with the family by the end of the piece.

Kohen's grandmother narrowly escaped the Nazis by taking the last boat out of Poland, even though the vessel was meant for livestock. After she landed in Argentina, she started a family and eventually moved to an immigrant community in Brighton Beach. There, we meet a motley group of characters including Kohen's abusive father, her desperate mother, her energetic brother, her saucy aunts, her grade school teacher, and various other people of the neighborhood. The writer-performer inhabits more than 20 personas completely, and her transformations between them are seamless.

The piece is most impressive when showing us the blending of two cultures. It's fun to watch Kohen's grandmother yell at her in Spanish while wearing a babushka -- an Eastern European headdress -- and referring to her by her Yiddish nickname: "¡Voy at matarte, Gabrielka!" In another scene, Kohen reenacts her first day of school in Spanish and English, and she exposes the self-hatred within her family when they grumble about all of the Hispanics moving into their neighborhood. After those ethnic slurs, the grandmother speaks up as the voice of reason, and it becomes clear that she is the heroine of this story; Gabriela, her "favorite" grandchild, has composed a very moving tribute to her.

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My Life as a Blonde

In Ilana Manaster's one-woman show, the writer-performer plays Gina Lombardi, daughter of a porn star nicknamed Kansas Winters because of her blonde hair. The schoolchildren tease Gina when they discover the sex flicks, but that doesn't stop her from admiring her momma. Kansas always carries herself like a Southern lady, looking for the gentleman caller who will whisk her away to a better life; think Blanche DuBois meets Debbie of "...Does Dallas" fame.

Miss Winters' profession eventually catches up with her daughter, who winds up having an underage affair with a sleazy suitor and dancing in a Miami strip club while wearing her mother's wig. Later, she shacks up with a club owner for years of loveless marriage, but even at her lowest, Gina rarely seems to resent her mother. In avoiding the interesting story of her childhood scars, My Life as a Blonde feels underdeveloped in its dramatic sections.

The comic bits are much more effective; one brief but memorable character is the mustachioed older man. Manaster, who is also an independent filmmaker, even serves up some wonderfully tacky clips from her mother's collection. (The best of these features Kansas Winters in a Mrs. Robinson-act with a panicky teenager.) Still, as a performance piece, My Life as a Blonde needs to explore more of what's behind the scenes.