Carnival 'Round the Central Figure: A Dying Man and a Cynical Televangelist

The set-up:

A man lies dying in a hospital, comatose but kept company by his wife, as various visitors come and go, and a variety of methods of dealing with death are explored. This is not a drama, but rather a comedic take, exaggerating attitudes, and moving intentionally well past satire into burlesque.

The execution:

The production has a minimal set but that is all it needs, as visual projections add depth and flavor, and a live video feed is used to powerful effect, so that the overall result is a highly professional look, with a polished sheen.

Paul (Rod Todd), a middle-aged accountant, lies in a hospital bed, dying. His face is whitened, and his mouth reddened, Kabuki-style. Though termed "the central figure", he is a minor character. He does not communicate, and in fact there is little real interaction between most of the characters, with one notable exception - visitors Kate and her husband Richard. They bicker, as Richard wants to leave the sickbed almost immediately while Kate wants to stay. The bickering turns to anger on Richard's part, and includes verbal abuse of Kate. Matt Benton plays Richard and captures his domineering, almost hysterical tyranny, and Arianna Bermudez is excellent as Kate, standing her ground and exuding much-needed warmth and caring.

Paul's wife, Sheila, is portrayed by Karen Schlag, whose assignment is to chatter incessantly, which is her way of denying the reality of Paul's looming death. She is upbeat to the point of being cheerful, and Schlag delivers beautifully this trait, though the script gives her little range for other emotions, except panic that a visitor might leave too soon. The repetitive insistence that others join in and share her optimistic views is intentionally irritating, and Richard turns on her viciously when he can no longer stand it.

The stage comes to exciting life with the entrance of actor John Dunn as a televangelist preacher with the program "Speak Straight to Jesus". Here a live televised feed projects the actors on an upstage screen, so that we seem to be both in the studio and at home viewing. Two potential testifiers are Becky (Elizabeth Marshall Black) and her husband John (Ryan Kelly), and the preacher drags a reluctant Becky to the camera to deliver her terrified testimony, as Marshall Black does with stark authenticity. Dunn's performance is nuanced and powerful, and is hilarious, as his portrayal cuts so close to the bone and is so convincing that we see why his program might be hugely successful.

Playwright Diana Amsterdam creates vivid characters, the preacher for one, and Maryanne, the hospital psychologist, is another. We first meet her lecturing on survival, and holding out the remote chance that death is not inevitable. She is portrayed by Courtney Lomelo - I relished her take on Maryanne - a bit insane but wonderfully self-confident.

Lyndsay Sweeney plays the nurse, a minor role, and uses a hugely over-sized syringe to draw blood from Paul, then drops his arm disdainfully - she is not hospice material. There is a chorus of two women and two men (Dani Luers, Shanon Adams, Eddie Edge and Miguel Garcia) and they enter from time to time, sometimes to sing, sometimes to move about the stage as though dancing, and most effectively as believers in the televangelist scene. They wear white masks at times, but we have much earlier grasped that this is experimental theater.

The televangelist returns for a second scene, this time to chastise pre-marital sex, but this undermines the brilliance of his first appearance. Playwright Amsterdam has given us a pastiche of skits, and I am grateful for the preacher and the psychologist, two riveting characters, and for Kate, a likable and affectionate character, swimming with sharks. And the squabbling that turned ugly from Richard has dramatic power, repellent and irritating as it is.

The running time was 68 minutes - there is no intermission - and the four-person chorus adds little, in my view, so the meat of the work is considerably shorter. Amsterdam repeats fragments of some scenes - to no apparent purpose, except to remind us that this is no ordinary play. But that is precisely the goal of this acting troupe, whose mission statement is "Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company seeks to challenge audiences and theater artists by creating and performing bold, innovative and fresh theatrical works grounded in the best traditions of the dramatic arts." The play is directed by Jennifer Decker, Artistic Director of Mildred's Umbrella, and she has delivered clearly the playwright's intentions, and has evoked interesting, authentic performances from the actors, while keeping the pace appropriately brisk. And the televangelist staging is a triumph.

The verdict:

An experimental play deals with reactions to death in satiric terms, though the humor is sparse. See it for its strong production values, vivid characters, and fine acting.

Carnival 'Round the Central Figure continues through November 23, from Mildred's Umbrella, at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. For information or ticketing, call 832-463-0409 or contact www.mildredsumbrella.com.

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