Hot Water

The Water Children
By Wendy MacLeod
The New Theatre

Wendy MacLeod's play The Water Children, which The New Theatre opened last weekend at New City School, takes about the clearest look at the debate over legal abortion I have experienced. The play moves away from abstraction and places the problem where it belongs: among believable people of goodwill who cannot agree among themselves on one correct response. The Water Children has its flaws -- a too-fast second act, a deus ex machina moment of truth and a have-a-nice-day conclusion. A skilled and appealing cast, however -- plus handsome technical work on set, lighting and costumes, and straightforward direction by Agnes Wilcox -- makes The Water Children an emotional and intellectual experience that is both entertaining and edifying.

The play concerns a competent and appealing thirtysomething actor, Meg (played by competent and appealing Debbie Dawson), who accepts a job in a pro-life commercial because she needs the money. Imagine her surprise when she finds Randall, the head of the organization sponsoring the commercial (winningly played by John Pierson), so attractive that she falls in love with him and he with her. She then gets pregnant and falls out of love (rather unreasonably, I thought) because Randall's organization is about to hire legal defense for Tony, a psychotic kid (Jared Joplin's strong, sure characterization inspires pity, fear and a little nausea) who has murdered three people at an abortion clinic. Meg leaves Randall and the U.S. for a job on a Japanese soap opera, the god pops out of the machine and the play ends surprisingly.

The Water Children is almost entirely without stereotypes, although there is one -- Meg's lesbian left-wing ideologue roommate, Liz (Cintia Sutton). The play also has a magic realism character, the ghost (as it were) of a fetus/child Meg aborted when she was 16. John Krewson does a magical job with the role as he moves from age to age, either independent of Meg's memory or as part of it. The production also has manifold little parts for Stellie Siteman (who's just not seen enough around here) and Ted Cancila (who's been seen a lot -- hurrah! -- recently). Alison Moritz is charmingly tedious as teenage Crystal, a child saved miraculously from abortion.

I believe that MacLeod's point in The Water Children is that pro-life and pro-choice folk can be complex people with complex motivations, and what gets us into trouble is absolutism. Meg acts from conviction sometimes, emotion sometimes, and (we hope) conscience in doing what she does. The Water Children has made only a small dent in my own stance on abortion, but it certainly gave me 90 minutes of fear and trembling. I hope a lot of people on both sides of the abortion dilemma take the opportunity to fear and tremble, too.

-- Harry Weber

Ship in a Bottle
By Jerrold Rabushka
Ragged Blade Productions

In the interest of wanting to support local artists, allow me to write the following: If you've been waiting for a gay S&M bondage musical, then your prayers are answered. Rush to St. John's United Methodist Church this weekend for the final performances of Ship in a Bottle. If, in fact, this is truly the case with you, read no further on this page, and go and enjoy.

Having now served the cause, I now must report that, for the second time as a reviewer, I walked out of a show after the first act. This is not easy to do, for I try to take the responsibility seriously, but as a human being, I have limits. Ship surely surpassed all of mine. Ship begins with a man being shackled and chained by an angel, or a spirit, or something and being auctioned to two unappealing men -- one an alcoholic, the other an obsessive whiner. There is much talk of master, slave and of how love does awful things to all involved, and then a few songs about it, too. The whiner later sings about his obsession with a sailor who died in a squall. The alcoholic gets a riff on how he just can't give up the bottle for love. At the end of the first act, the slave sings to his mother about how he's comin' home.

If all of this had been played for camp, it might have held the audience's attention. As it was, it was all terribly sincere, and often sincerely terrible. As the chief creative force for the work, Jerrold Rabushka must be credited for trying to explore some new areas onstage and for attempting to articulate some complex themes about masters and slaves. But the dialogue was didactic and implausible, and the show's metaphorical framework was arch and dulling. As far as examining the human heart, your average Lifetime Cheryl Ladd TV movie is more effective.

So why couldn't I stick it out? Are my standards for a local production like this too high? Well, it is very, very rare that there is nothing on a stage that can hold my attention and make me stay. But Rabushka's work just kept hitting the same sad, immature and ultimately self-indulgent note over and over and over again. Ship in a Bottle should have been a conversation with a therapist, not a play, and especially not a musical. As for the performers, they were uncommonly brave. But the sum total was so dispiriting, and so void of any element that one might possibly go to the theater for, that staying another hour would have just been offering nothing more than a representative nod of my respect and affection for artists and their experiments. But on Saturday night, its limit was surely reached, and escaping into the cool, clear night was the only humane option.

-- Mike Isaacson

Reno Finds Her Mind
By Reno
Women CenterStage at COCA

The name Karen Patricia doesn't really fit the person we see onstage. That's why the world knows her only by her last name, Reno. It has an appropriately carnivalesque sound. With a build inspired by a fireplug, Reno comes on like Bette Midler on speed. But her mind works more like George Carlin's, probing the odd corners of life and language, making us laugh at the weird juxtapositions we take for granted until she points them out to us. And she shows the same disregard for the niceties of language and life that got Carlin into trouble with the FCC.

Reno blew into town last weekend for the Women CenterStage series at COCA. She kept a full house alternately chuckling and guffawing for almost two hours.

The stage at COCA had some candles and a trio of stuffed animals strewn around. They were purely eye candy, neither used nor referred to by Reno. She doesn't need a set for what is essentially a standup-comedy routine. This is a tightly organized routine, and Reno has put more thought into it than goes into most standup routines. It's a routine in which form and content match perfectly. The form appears to be a random, stream-of-consciousness flow of thoughts. It gives us a picture of the evening's subject, Reno's mind. This is, of course, a cunningly constructed picture, a random flow designed to reveal just those juxtapositions that call forth laughter and insight.

Reno began the evening by telling us about her problems with time. Time passes too quickly. She wants to call time-out, as in a basketball game. This leads inexorably to consideration of bankers' hours, which calls forth an exploration of the word "escrow." What is it? Where is it? Where does money go when it's put in escrow?

A trip to Sears to try -- fruitlessly -- to use the new credit card they sent Reno led somehow to the question of why TV sportscasters focus on WNBA players who have hyphenated last names and how many children they have. And to a complaint about the way female genitalia are arranged. In a local touch, she even came up with an explanation for why the Rams lose so many games. It has to do with the instructions in a box of tampons. Don't ask.

The intensity of Reno's impassioned delivery carries you happily over the rare weak moments in her material and on to the next hilarious insight that pops out of the strange recesses of her brain. By the end of the evening, you may agree with the therapist who gave Reno a diagnosis of adult attention-deficit disorder. You will also agree with Reno's decision not to have a brain scan in order to locate the problem. Reno finds her mind just fine as it is. So do we.

-- Bob Wilcox

Man of La Mancha
By Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion
UM-St. Louis Department of Music

You probably can't compress all the complex riches of Miguel de Cervantes' novel Don Quixote into the two hours' traffic of the stage. Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, creators of the musical Man of La Mancha, wisely framed their adaptation as a drama improvised by Cervantes for and with his fellow prisoners in a dungeon of the Inquisition. That allows them to focus on the courage needed to live the life of the imagination, as the artist does, and the value such courage bestows on even the lowliest person. It's the theme enshrined in the show's best-known number, "The Impossible Dream."

The Department of Music at the University of Missouri-St. Louis wisely hired Milton Zoth to direct their recent production of Man of La Mancha. Zoth saw to it that the cast felt confident onstage and always told the story clearly. He got help from Patrick Huber's crannied, multileveled set, ribbed with dinosaur bones -- why bones, I don't know, but it did look good -- and Huber's sculptural lighting. Teresa Doggett created eye appeal through the patterns and textures of the rags-and-tatters costumes, and choreographer Cindy Duggan gave the performers amusing steps that didn't strain their limited experience.

For this production obviously sprang from a university program that trains singers, not actors. The acting rarely showed much range and could be amateurish (the text is not easy to speak). But it was never weak or embarrassing. And the singing was very fine. A strong wind ensemble made up mostly of UM-St. Louis faculty members, conducted by James Richards, provided firm support. Faculty member Mark Madsen, who produced the evening, gave clear voice to Cervantes and a nicely whimsical quality to Quixote. Students Michele Eise, as Aldonza, and Joe Mosier, as Sancho, showed strong, well-trained voices, as did all the supporting players. I was particularly taken with both the acting and singing of Keith Boyer as the Padre.

This was UM-St. Louis' first musical production in a decade. I hope we don't have to wait so long for their next one.

-- Bob Wilcox

Dance Conduit
Repertory Arts Movement

The second Dance Conduit concert -- a revue of several dance companies and the work of various choreographers from St. Louis, Columbia and Kansas City -- took place last weekend at the St. Louis Art Museum Auditorium. If anything, there may have been more dance than is reasonable for one evening, and a good deal of the choreography was rather insipid and samey.

The good stuff, however, was good indeed. David Marchant and Carrie Hanson's choreography and performance of "Mrs. Johnson Regrets," although wonky, is a dark but comic look at the guerrilla war between the sexes. The St. Louis Irish Arts performers gave us some traditional Irish step-dancing and clogging to live (and excellently played) music. A comic piece, "All Out," by the Aha! Dance Theatre from Kansas City was witty and imaginative. "Square Variation," choreographed by Ton Simons and performed by Lisa Morovitz-Geger (to whom the work is dedicated), gave us a rare look at a celebrated European choreographer's work. Draza Jansky's choreography and performance were strong and sure, and Maggi Konkel, performing a piece by Gary Hubler, is a dancer with presence and elegance -- let's see more of her.

The Davidson Dance Group's 1998 "Koinania," choreographed by Rob Davidson, was the evening's highlight, however, as it was at last year's Dance Conduit concert. Six dancers (four women and two men) moved most artfully to a Handel suite. The choreography seemed lush and economical at the same time, and the dance itself seemed completely of itself and the Handel. The Davidson Group's technique depended heavily on ballet training (as Francisco Graciano's impressive leaps demonstrated). The music was obviously the basis of the abstract motion, which was not the case in several of the evening's other pieces, in which the choreography corresponded to the music's rhythm but any music with the same rhythm could have done as well.

More (and more frequent) Dance Conduits are promised for the future. I would suggest that Morovitz-Geger aim for quality over quantity and perhaps drop the longish flower ceremony that ended the evening. But she can really do as she pleases as long as Dance Conduit continues flowing.

-- Harry Weber

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