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Fine Fusion

Roberto Zucco takes a haunting look at conformity

Lately the folks at Infernal Bridegroom Productions seem hell-bent on proving themselves to be the most innovative and exciting theater company Houston has ever engendered. Their exquisite world of wonderland shows just gets curiouser and curiouser and smarter and smarter. And the thrilling intellectual puzzle of their latest endeavor, Roberto Zucco by Bernard-Marie Koltès, is as good as it gets.

In this disturbing play at The Actors Workshop, urban legend collides with the synthetic universe of art. Out of this violence comes an exploration of our cultural identity. Bleak and dark, Koltès's script creates characters who are lost without the conventions of labels. They are trapped, imprisoned by familiar yet destructive paradigms.

Labels are used throughout the play to underscore Koltès's argument. In the first scene, entitled "The Breakout" with white-light letters projected onto the back of the black box stage, Roberto Zucco (George Parker) breaks out of a prison. The two guards (Paul Locklear and Daniel Treadway) watching the yard have been lulled into believing the rhetoric of their own state-of-the-art jail, including the idea that no one can break out of this prison. "I don't see anything 'cause there's nothing to see," says one guard to the other. He believes what he has been told rather than what his own eyes reveal to be true. They ponder such psychobabble as whether "the murderous impulse starts in the penis," while the murderer Zucco slips away before they can admit they see an escaping prisoner.

The strengths of this production are established early. Troy Schulze's direction is hypnotic. The guards, engaged in this curious cocktail-party chat, stand in the dark shadows of the prison yard, facing straight out as if caught in a trance of conformity. Their eyes are nothing more than black circles on their ghostly faces. This stunning image implies volumes about what happens when we stop attempting to think for ourselves. In fact, the actors work within the brilliant metaphoric lighting designed by Kris Phelps.

Stark and white, the searing light destroys any notions of controlling the influences of culture. The beam that cuts through the darkness does nothing but blind us. Characters are often backlit, so they remain in virtual darkness. They are thus unknowable. We can see the light, but we cannot see them.

When the audience can see the stage, so much is happening there. Tamarie Cooper has, without question, come into her own with her multiple roles. She moves with ease from a browbeating mother in red to a frightened black-haired prostitute to a lost lady in white.

Michelle Edwards as a whorehouse madam is chilling. She snakes her arms around her girls, at once lascivious and contemptuous. Andy Nelson is, as always, riotously funny as an ex-war hero too cowardly to stop an ordinary street crime. Christine Auten as The Girl who falls for Roberto is charming and sweet and very comic, especially done up in her ill-fitting hooker heels with lipstick smeared over her mouth.

And Parker as the notorious Zucco manages to create a perfect antihero. He's the kind of murderous narcissist who sees the world in his own solipsistic sorrows. "I'd like to be reborn a dog and find a little less unhappiness," he says after having killed his parents with his bare hands.

Roberto Zucco is a daredevil script, a strange fusion of dark humor, morose intellectualism and wildly brave theatricality. And IBP's production keeps this raggedy theater company at the very heart of everything that is fresh, new and important in Houston's theater scene.Ronnie Larsen's Making Porn -- produced by Caryn Horwitz and making its Texas debut at the New Heights Theatre -- is a tasteless romp through a ditch of naughty behavior, carried out by a bunch of boneheads who might as well call themselves dumb and dumber, and too dumb to get dressed.

But as ridiculously adolescent as this show is, it is also often hilarious.

This exploitation, er, exploration of the male porn industry concentrates on three men. Jack (Eric Jirak) is a straight stand-up guy who wants to be a serious Shakespearean actor. But the poor schmo can't even remember his audition monologue, and he hasn't found work in years. His wife, Linda (Lisa Joffroy), a legal secretary, has just about had it with the pipe dreams of her obviously untalented husband. Dead broke and desperate, the guy takes a job doing porn.

On the other hand, there's Ricky (Chad Donovan, a real live "internationally known porn superstar"), a young lad with an enormously large ropelike wee-wang which he twirls for the audience like a lasso. Unlike Jack, Ricky dreams of pornographic stardom. He's a good son, though, so after he has won his porno awards, he wants to go to law school.

The skanky-looking, dirty-blond Ray Tanner (Peter Nevargic) is the star of San Francisco's finest jack-off shows. These men come together (no pun intended) to make a fine flick that indeed makes them stars. Poor Jack wins the sort of reviews he has dreamed of all his life, but he never wanted to be in porn.

Several side stories happen along the way. Jack and Linda break up. Ricky falls in love. Linda decides she likes the porn industry and becomes the most cutthroat of producers. AIDS appears. As written, these cellophane-thin subplots do nothing but provide a bridge between a series of naked guy scenes. For just like in the real thing, Making Porn is most of all about men stripping off their tightie-whities and boxers so that they can show off their nude heinies and get down to business.

The only thing that yanks this show from the bubbling slime of the gutter is the way these sex scenes are handled with wonderfully ironic tone. We first meet Ray as he struts into a bar to do his jack-off act. Buck-naked, he sits down and goes at it. But his back is to us. The audience is in the very intimate position of being backstage. In this way we become complicit with Ray, become a group of "insiders." And from the inside, the sex trade looks incredibly banal. As he "works," Ray scratches his butt, pulls something from his ear, rubs his eye.

Making pornography, we find out, is equally unglamorous, filled with such day-to-day chores as shaving excess body hair. This drudgery is carried out with a great glee by this energetic, though not very talented, cast. In fact, much of the acting seems as if it is intended to be some sort of emulation of porno acting.

But the good jokes abound, and the naked men are clearly huge crowd pleasers -- in every way imaginable.

Roberto Zucco runs through September 11 at The Actors Workshop, 1009 Chartres, (713)522-8443. $7.99 - $9.99. Making Porn runs through September 5 at New Heights Theatre, 339 West 19th Street, (713)869-8927. $20 - $25.

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