Alone Again

Different authors, different theaters, the same question -- how do you deal with loneliness?

What it also means, at a much less satisfactory level, is that the play doesn't have a heart. Madeline and Peter talk on the phone instead of in person, and even then their communication is fraught with double meaning and isolation -- Congdon's comment, most likely, on the miserable state of human relations. A sense of unbearable loneliness is one element that fills the production: No matter how hard they try, neither Madeline nor Peter can find someone to love as much as they love each other. That Dog Opera doesn't have a story, at least in the traditional sense, to pull all this angst together seems to be part of the point. If it is the point, one expects some alternative provocation -- a sense of anger, perhaps. It never comes.

Pieced together in short and razor-sharp scenes, the play finds Madeline in increasingly desperate dating situations, always resulting in the same blowoff, while Peter attempts to work up an erection alone. It's honest, all right, and perhaps a bit more vulgar than is necessary to drive the misery home: Just how many masturbation jokes can one play handle? Still, Holli Golden is delightfully neurotic as Madeline, and infuses the character with her gift for mischief; she's always able to find solace in a bag of Oreos. And as Peter, Jeffrey Gimble offers up an unabashedly self-involved guy who has a hard time getting out and about.

Playing off the two friends are a variety of double-cast actors, portraying boyfriends, parents and the occasional mystic figure. And commenting on the lousy state of sex and love in the '90s is a teenage street hustler, Jackie, the evening's often precious voice of reason. After a long monologue about the mating lives of insects, Jackie, played economically by Adrian Porter, tells us, "If motels didn't have cable, I wouldn't know any of this, and I'd be happier." The reversal of a potentially sappy metaphor is a pleasant surprise, and one that's characteristic of Congdon's otherwise ungainly style. The actors' ensemble work, especially Connie Cooper's wretchedly comic Bernice and William Hardy as Peter's father, serves as one of the production's most enjoyable strong points.

But there's no getting over the play's awkwardness.
Often, the less grounded elements of Dog Opera feel forced and ultimately ridiculous. Without explanation (thank god), an Arapaho Indian brave appears during Jackie's monologues, hugging the set's perimeter outfitted in campy braids and a breastplate. As Jackie's monologues get longer, the brave gets bolder, moving in closer to hover over him. Porter is good in fearing the Indian's unseen, godlike presence, but the scenes are too obviously a ploy. And designed to do what? Convince us that these sad people live in a spiritually bankrupt world? It ends up being a clumsy conceit -- one that's almost laughable.

There is some truth, even an inspired understanding of longing, in this play, and perhaps to a greater extent, in this production, but it isn't enough to warrant the work necessary to divine it. To be challenged in terms of form and content is a welcome part of going to the theater, but in the case of Dog Opera, meeting the challenge simply isn't worth the effort.

The Member of the Wedding plays through April 27 at Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose, 524-6706.

Dog Opera plays through April 27 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 527-0220.

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