Tuesday, June 23, 2009

At BPP: variations on originality (review)

Clockwise from bottom: Benjamin Ismail, Jessica Goldman, Kellie Yvonne Raines, Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly, Alysha Krumm

According to its mission statement, the aim of Sacramento’s Beyond the Proscenium Productions (BPP) “is to deepen the artistic connection between performer and audience by producing unconventional, disciplined, and highly stylized work.” Its latest effort, “Variations on Betrayal,” is certainly unconventional–but “disciplined”? Hm-mm.

When Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” made its debut in Paris in 1913 it caused a riot. The problem was not lack of discipline; it was the audience’s lack of knowledge of Stravinsky’s rules. Merely yelling and flinging yourself around is not necessarily art.

P. Joshua Laskey, writer and director, does have a strategy: to draw an analogy between modern corporations and Benedict Arnold. But wait a minute. Which Benedict Arnold do we mean? In grade school we see his name as a synonym for “treason.” Laskey’s man, though flawed, is more sinned against than sinning. Like many other American officers during the Revolutionary War, he was often treated shamefully.

On arriving at the theater you are offered, along with the playbill, a five-page printout that could change your entire view of Arnold–if you can absorb it before the action starts. To add to our frustration, Laskey identifies his five characters as clowns, with a wink more at Sondheim than Beckett.

The play opens with four of them moving robotically around the inert Clown-in-black, played by Benjamin T. Ismail, who’s identified later as Benedict (wink-wink, nudge-nudge), a simple and ambitious young salesman, hired, flattered and abused by his boss, Mr. George (a.k.a. the Clown-in-Purple), played by Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly. Mr. George is caught between his investment (including his coat) in Benedict and the heads of the company, played by Kellie Yvonne Raines and Alysha S. Krumm.

Enter the beautiful enemy, the ever-so-British Clown-in-Red, played to the hilt by Jessica Goldman, representing the company’s competition, a British rival. (Are you getting this yet?) The first two acts labor through abstruse parallels between the modern corporation and the Continental army.

Arnold, wounded in battle, survived with a crippled leg; Benedict of the play has a leg amputated in a hospital. Both Arnold and his fictional counterpart were unceremoniously stripped of the paid medical care to which they were entitled. Both went broke. In the third act of this three-hour marathon, we get a clearer plot conflict when the Clown-in-Red overtly courts Benedict and generates a tug of war. And if we still don’t get it, Mr. George reminds us that “My regret is that I have only one life to give for my company.”

Though the acting and directing are very sharp, the historical analogy seems strained, as in the parody of Nathan Hale’s famous line, quoted above. Trying to equate company loyalty with patriotism seems a dead-ended stretch. Though “Variations on Betrayal” has its bright spots, Laskey’s considerable writing gifts could be better served by an insightful play about Benedict Arnold himself.

“Variations on Betrayal” continues through July 19 at Sacramento’s Wilkerson Theater, 1713 25th Street. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. There will be no performance on July 4. A Thursday evening performance on July 2 will take its place. Tickets are $15. The intimate theater has limited seating, so reservations are advised. Call 916-456-1600 or e-mail contact@beyond-pro.org.

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