Bullying Takes Center Stage in The Poets

The setup:

A young poet is rejected by his father and bullied at school by a classmate for not measuring up to their concept of masculinity.

The execution:

The focal point of the set is the bedroom of Santiago, a young poet in-the-making, living with his mother Anita, who has a restraining order against separated husband Juan, Santiago's father. Juan is alcoholic, given to rage and homophobic to the bone. Interestingly, Santiago is not gay, but his slender frame and soft manner persuade Juan and schoolmate Darryl that he is. And Santiago writes poetry, surely the clincher!

Pot-smoker Audrey, a fellow poet, befriends Santiago, and the seeds of a relationship are planted, but after some especially high-octane bullying from Darryl, Santiago despairs, and here the play takes a surprising turn from kitchen-sink drama to magical realism. Tommy (Caleb White), enters from the closet in Santiago's bedroom, where he has been hiding for several days. His entrance breathes fire into the play, as Tommy is poised, humorous and sprightly, but also because White is a consummate actor. Tommy is gay, and becomes a friend and supporter of Santiago. To say more would give away some very intriguing surprises, but Tommy has a lengthy and impassioned monologue in Act Two, delivered powerfully, and the play comes close to being about Tommy instead of about Santiago.

Mark Bush in the lead role of Santiago creates an appealing quasi-victim, and generates a sense of sincerity, but seems to slip in and out of character. Catlin Uhlig as Santiago's mother is much too young for the part. She is excellent in her scenes with her husband but is not persuasive with a difficult prayer-like monologue in Act II; it may be that no actor could pull this off, and I wonder if the play needs it. Ashlie Elyse Sustaita as Audrey is good, but perhaps a shade too uniformly brisk. Al Bauman as Juan is intense, and effective in communicating menace. And Alex Rubit is excellent as the school bully, Darryl.

The work has patches of brilliance, and playwright Ricky Catter has a keen ear for the phase that ends a scene, or an act. He shapes his scenes well, usually keeping them brief and cinematic. The play as a whole is shaped less well, lapses into preaching on occasion and slides too easily into sentimentality, but it has a power and authenticity that mark Catter as a playwright to be reckoned with. There are snatches of poetry read from time to time, and these slow the play down and (sorry!) often aren't very good.

Stephanie Morris, in her directorial debut, hasn't achieved ensemble acting, though there are some crisp, exciting scenes. This is a work that should be pursued, perhaps edited and tightened, and the magic realism might be introduced sooner -- it works so well in adding elements of surprise, creating vivid tableaux and keeping the audience guessing that it might begin earlier, rather than as a middle-of-the-play event.

The verdict: An ambitious effort by a young playwright is well worth seeing, with some intriguing scenes and powerful performances. Be patient through the weaker moments.

The Poets: a Play in Two Acts, from E. Catter Productions, continues through July 8 at Frenetic Theatre, 5102 Navigation Blvd. For ticketing or information, call 832-426-4624 or 832-865-3413.

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Jim Tommaney