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Andy Phelan and Richard Gallagher in A Taste of Heaven
(Photo © Gabrielle Heller)
A Taste of Heaven

A Taste of Heaven is exquisite. Michael D. Jackson's play is inspired by the diary of F.S. Ryman, whose writing offers a fascinating look at same-sex intimacy during the late 1800s-early 1900s.

The two-man play centers around Ryan Belmont (Richard Gallagher) and Rob Luke (Andy Phelan). Ryan is a young Don Juan, regaling his friend with accounts of his sexual liaisons with various women; Rob, on the other hand, reveals that he shared a passionate evening with a male schoolmate. Each becomes for the other the only person in whom he can truly confide without fear. Theirs is a special friendship filled with frank talk about sex, debates on the morality and sinfulness of their pleasures, and society's expectations regarding marriage and responsibility.

Gallagher and Phelan have an undeniable chemistry on stage; the progression of their characters' relationship from friends to lovers completely believable. Smartly directed by Chad Ryan, the actors find both the humor and tenderness in the play's text.

A Taste of Heaven follows Ryan and Rob's friendship over several years. The use of diary entries and letters shows the progression of time and allows us to hear the characters' innermost thoughts. Simply staged and crisply paced, the production is touching and beautiful.



Maritess Zurbana is an accomplished magician, one of only a handful of women (and probably the only Filipina-American) in this male-dominated field . Unfortunately, she is less successful as the star of Girliemagic, an autobiographical dance theater magic show presented by the Six Figures Theatre Company.

The idea for the piece is terrific. It's rare that these genres are combined -- I certainly can't think of any other examples -- and parts of the show are quite successful. The four sexy back-up dancers execute Juan Borona's eclectic choreography with energy and humor; whether in a tap number or a Las Vegas-style dance routine, the quartet is consistently entertaining.

Zurbana impresses with magical feats that range from card tricks to levitation, though there are times when one can see through the illusion; the lights catch the wire used to float a walking stick, for example. But the main problem is that Zurbana has not found a way to give the piece cohesion. Instead, we hear disconnected tales and fragments of stories. The writer/performer's attempts to play other characters fail to engage and she never quite connects with her audience. Director Cris Buchner's staging also leaves something to be desired and the pacing is rather sluggish -- particularly during the long, drawn-out opening sequence where Zurbano delivers a monologue accompanied by a piano version of "My Way." This starts the show off on the wrong foot, and flashy dance sequences and magic tricks aren't enough to help it recover.


Rik Reppe in Staggering Toward America
(Photo © Glen Lipton)
Staggering Toward America

It's difficult not to cry during Staggering Toward America. It's equally difficult not to laugh. Rik Reppe's powerful solo show tells the story of one man's search for the meaning of America post September 11, 2001.

The project is fraught with peril; there's the danger that it will come across as pretentious, overly sentimental, and/or clichéd. Reppe does occasionally fall into these traps but the majority of the 90-minute show is both hilarious and heartbreaking because Reppe is a skilled storyteller. He knows how to vary his cadence and tone of voice for maximum dramatic impact. He's charming and conversational, and he readily acknowledges the privileges that allowed him -- a heterosexual, white male with money in the bank -- to quit his job as a management consultant and drive cross-country, talking to people about how 9/11 affected them.

If he talked to politicians and activists, those stories aren't included here. Instead, Reppe spoke with a wide cross section of Americans of all races. There were requisite visits to Washington, D.C., New York, and Shanksville, PA, but what will remain with you after the performance are the very real human stories he recounts. He tells of a little girl in Texas who asked her father to donate all the money she possessed ($6.17) and her beloved teddy bear to an orphaned girl in New York that she saw on TV. He tells of an African-American matriarch who guilt-tripped Reppe into visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis when he had only planned to go to Graceland. And he tells of a surfer dude in North Carolina who visited New York right after September 11th on a lark and wound up going back again and again to volunteer. Reppe combines his narration with snippets of character impersonations that are never overdone and often add depth to his portrayals.


McBeth -- Over 2 Million Slain

Shakespeare's works have had many "concepts" imposed upon them over the centuries. Of those I've seen, the majority have not worked. So it's somewhat surprising that there is much to commend in Ideal Theatricals' production of McBeth -- Over 2 Million Slain, a fast-food take on "the Scottish play."

The production is grounded by Kevin Shinick as Macbeth. His command of Shakespeare's verse is impressive, as is his ability to find the humor in the text. Shinick also serves as director and he is ably assisted by costume designer Christine Field, who brings to fabulous life a Colonel Sanders-like King Duncan, a Burger King of a Macduff, and -- of course -- the title character, who bears a startling likeness to a certain red-and-gold-clad clown.

Visual puns litter the production; there are appearances by a Domino's Pizza delivery boy, two Hamburglars, and more. Overhead screen projections give a mini-history of the rise of the McDonalds corporate empire and other fast food facts. However, all is not played for laughs. This is still Shakespeare's text, and even though it has been edited down to an hour and 40 minutes in length, the arc of the play and much of its language are intact.

Unfortunately, only a few of the actors make that language sing. In addition to Shinick, Ron McLary as Banquo manages better than most and Postell Pringle, dressed as a McDonalds employee, is quite good in the minor role of Lennox. On the downside, Jennifer Carta's Lady Macbeth barely scratches the surface of this complex character, and Craig Dudley isn't funny as the porter -- odd, considering that this is the role Shakespeare actually intended as comic relief.

Those seeking greater insight into Shakespeare's masterpiece will not find it here. Still, McBeth is fun to watch and it had me craving a Happy Meal as I left the theater.


The cast of Slavery
(Photo © Ron Williams)

It's difficult for me to evaluate Slavery, the award-winning musical play based on the Federal Writer's Project of the WPA's interviews of former slaves in the 1930s, because I was distracted by the presence of a photographer (acting in an official capacity) who wandered back and forth in the tiny Bottle Factory Theater. At times, she was standing directly in my line of vision and the click and whirr of her camera ruined a number of the show's quieter moments for me.

There's no doubt that the stories have power, and the seven-person ensemble creates truly wondrous harmony while singing, yet only a few of the performers achieve a real emotional connection with the stories they tell. One stand-out is Anthony Tomkins, who tells the life history of Frank Bell: Tomkins speaks in a simple manner, and that very simplicity makes the gruesome story of Bell's master cutting off the head of his slave's wife especially moving.

Interspersed with the first-person accounts of former slaves are thematic segments addressing various aspects of the interview subjects' lives -- education, marriage, music, and so on. The spirituals sung by the cast to good effect include "Wade in the Water," "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Amazing Grace."

Unfortunately, for much of the show, the company seems to be going through the motions rather than giving their all; the pacing is sometimes tediously slow, and energy and vitality are in short supply. Directed by Jonathan Payne (who is also one of the performers), Slavery is certainly a worthwhile project but it doesn't make for riveting theater.

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