The Politics of the Real

In Washington, Ken Starr, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky may have momentarily cornered the market on political drama (or farce, depending on your point of view), but here in Houston, we've got our own version of governmental theater. True, ours may not be as hot, saucy and downright dirty as what you're seeing on your television every morning, noon and night, but both Stages Repertory Theatre and the Ensemble Theatre are currently running plays that might actually offer you some real food for political thought.

Stages' world premiere production of Ascendancy, by Gary Bonasorte, examines the AIDS epidemic as it stands two decades after it began. This play is yet another in a long succession of works about the AIDS crisis -- which, in some people's minds, may not even seem like much of a crisis anymore, what with all the new drugs and hopeful sound bites of information. But though there are new chemical cocktails and new hopes for AIDS sufferers, death and loss remain ever present, and the politics surrounding the drugs have brought with them a brand-new set of struggles. For these reasons, and because it has a crackerjack cast, Ascendancy, though struggling in places, succeeds in offering a worthy, even moving, view of what it means to struggle with death, loss and AIDS in the late '90s.

The plot isn't much. We follow three characters -- a straight hemophiliac (Jimmy), a strident bisexual woman (Maria) and a gay man (Nick) who loses his lover (Robert) -- through the machinations of a drug trial. The author, who co-founded New York's Community Research Initiative on AIDS, utilizes his insider knowledge to give the dialogue concerning the ins and outs of drug companies and drug trials terrific veracity. But the drug trial is almost secondary to the struggle his characters go through as they, and the people they love, try to reconstruct a way to live, knowing, in a visceral way, that they will die, and possibly very soon.

The AIDS clinic in which the play is set is run by Jason Armstrong, a burned-out receptionist who blabs on the phone endlessly; Kate McCleary, a nurse who impatiently questions hopeful drug-trial applicants; and Dr. Holland, who appears to have a heart molded from cement. At first these characters seem so flat as to be almost cartoonish -- catty-fey receptionist, by-the-book nurse, wicked-wealthy doctor -- but eventually they peel away their public personas to reveal private and sometimes surprising histories. Each has suffered enormous loss. These revelations are some of the play's best moments. They challenge us to reexamine the way in which we construct our worlds and construct our truths -- about each other, about ourselves, about living and dying. Indeed, Ascendancy asks us to question our very notions of the boundaries between life and death.

Besides having the characters slowly reveal their stories, Bonasorte utilizes two other strategies to discuss the idea that things are not always as simple as they seem. First, there's a guru-ghost who keeps popping up to give people hope at hard moments, a conceit that is tired at best and hackneyed at worst (though Joel Sandel as the ghost does a fine job with the role he's been given). To make matters worse, the ghost runs around uttering ridiculous sentiments such as "love is life" like a reject from a yoga video. This kind of soap-box didacticism is disappointing from a production that is otherwise rich with original ideas.

One example of that originality is a talking stove at center stage. It seems that the stove in the clinic's lounge is hooked up to a gas line that runs straight to Texas. This stove becomes a conduit to a world of poetry and joy for Kate, the heartsick nurse. The idea is so downright loony that it eventually works, both metaphorically and comically. Clearly, a woman reciting poetry to a stove that talks back is ripe with comic potential, and as Kate, Anne Quackenbush mines that potential for all it's worth. Even more interesting, though, is the insinuation that the world is full of surprises. Here, the play's message seems simply to be that we can find (or make) meaning in the most absurd of circumstances and in the most difficult of places. Faith is a good thing, and is powerful even when we look silly having it.

Quackenbush, who carries the weight of the show as the leading lady, is supported by a fine cast that includes Robin Burke as the gabby receptionist; Bryan Bounds as Jimmy the nice-guy hemophiliac; and Allisa Alban as the tough-talking (if a little too earnest) Maria.

Not everything in Ascendancy works: The set is decorated with backlit transparencies of such things as an armchair and flowers, images that are both distracting and too obvious in their meaning, and all the actors needed some refinement of their more dramatic moments, which were often wailed in a high-pitched, one-note delivery, accompanied by pounding or clenched fists.

Still, the play is promising: It's funny and, at times, moving. Bonasorte reveals himself to be a playwright with a tender and loopy imagination.

A short distance east of Stages, the Ensemble is currently showing its own political fare, The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe (successor to Joseph Papp at the Public Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival). These 11 comedy sketches, strung together by theme and objective, go for blood as they gleefully satirize and rip apart African-American stereotypes to reveal their destructive ramifications. Lively, energetic and thought-provoking, the Ensemble's production proves that Wolfe's play is as funny and painfully meaningful today as it was when it was first produced, 12 years ago.

Though not every skit works as well as the rest, some are so successful that the five actors who make up the cast will have to learn to wait for the audience to stop laughing before they go on with their lines.

One example of the excellent work of the Ensemble's production comes from Adrian C. Porter as Miss Roj in "The Gospel According to Miss Roj." This long monologue from a transvestite "snap-queen" dressed in spandex bell-bottoms, mile-high platforms and a bouncy, picked-out afro that blooms out to there is unforgettable. Miss Roj's snap is so powerful that she actually snapped an ugly-mouthed, gay-hating gawker to death one afternoon. She snapped him up one side and down the other, and then, suddenly: "Heart attack," she tells us with absolute authority. Porter gives a highlight performance that moves from being hysterically funny to poignantly sad when we discover that Miss Roj is, for all her bravado, lonely and alone. She's been marginalized not just by the homophobes on the boardwalk, but by her family, and her only place of solace is the bar from which she tells her tale. Like all of Colored Museum's characters, Miss Roj is a cliche, but she's one that's revealed as fresh and new.

Another sketch that had the audience rocking in their seats with laughter was "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play." One of the evening's longest scenes, it employs the full cast of five as it crushes many of the cliches that television lives by: The youth who can't get anywhere because of "The Man"; the iron-haired, housedress-wearing Mama (her dress matched the couch) who sits with her legs splayed, worrying endlessly about getting her son to wipe his feet; the angry young wife who weeps and wails and carries on, her arms flailing. There's even a slow-motion death scene in which the young man (who has thrown his babies out the window) is shot by police. Part of what makes this sketch so brilliant is the all-out energy of the actors. Adrian Porter, Michael Green, BeBe Wilson, Kelley Smith and Cheray Martin are all terrific, though Martin in particular deserves some sort of medal for her role as the angry young wife, which has to be one of the funniest performances I've seen all year.

Perhaps the weakest part of The Colored Museum is that many of the sketches go on just long enough to be too long. In fact, every scene could have been cut by at least a line or two, and some sketches, such as "Soldier with a Secret" and "Permutations," were so shaky as to be more puzzling than interesting.

Since the production functions much like a highbrow (and higher quality) Saturday Night Live or In Living Color, shortening and tightening it would only make a fun play even finer. It would also make it even more thought-provoking -- a rare pleasure in a time when broadcast news trivializes politics for our viewing pleasure. Television may provide all one needs of scandal, but thanks to plays such as Ascendancy and The Colored Museum, at the theater, at least, you can think about real issues.

Ascendancy plays through February 15 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 527-0220.

The Colored Museum plays through March 1 at the Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 520-0055.