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Thunder Mountain Theatre Project plays tackle deep, difficult questions

Posted: Friday, February 06, 2009

Thunder Mountain Theatre Project is presenting two plays in a rotating schedule at the old Elks Lodge through Feb. 15 only. Check their Web site, www.thundermountaintheatre.org, for details.

The plays are strikingly different, but both bring up deep and difficult questions. One intrepid actor, Enrique Bravo, acts in both.

"Shakespeare's R&J" is a unique and often hilarious adaptation, by Joe Calarco in 1998, of the Bard's most famous play, "Romeo and Juliet." The four actors are Ryan Conarro (Juliet and Benvolio), Ryan Tresser (Romeo), Enrique Bravo (Lady Capulet and Mercutio) and Lucas Hoiland (Juliet's nursemaid and Tibalt).

One of my favorite scenes features three of the actors, all in their female roles, bickering and scheming together. Hoiland is wonderful to watch as an old woman, while Conarro plays Juliet with both strength and sweetness.

This all-male cast serves several purposes, not the least is a tribute to how plays were done in Elizabethan times. Back then, female roles were played by men in dresses.

Our show opens with the four men in identical white shirtsleeves, black slacks and dark ties. They are young men attending some kind of boarding or prep school, working out their thoughts and feelings about love, sex and machismo.

"It's a coming of age piece," explained director Flordelino Lagundino, who did a splendid job casting these talented actors.

The set is extremely spare - a swath of red cloth, a book, a tall ladder and aluminum bleachers set upright - which helps emphasize not only the rambunctious physical antics but also the beautifully delivered Shakespearean English. Most of the script is direct from the Bard, abbreviated, but some new language has been inserted, to establish specific twists for this romantic tragedy.

Lagundino has pulled out of the script a vigorous inquiry into the nature of love, manhood and emotional violence. Themes including homophobia and sexism are established in a strident, modern, way at the top of the play with the men reciting clips from their Latin or social studies homework in unison.

"Amo, amas, amat..." "Men govern; women charm and influence..." Antidotes to these social ills are also offered.

In the first scenes where Conarro demurely portrays the virgin Juliet, his affect is distinctly feminine. However, as the play, and the brief but potent contact with Tresser's Romeo progresses, Conarro's delivery becomes increasingly more gender-neutral. This is a fascinating aspect of the show because it's not a "gay" play, per se, but rather challenges the viewer to recognize that true love is real love, whether between a man and a woman, or not.

•••

"Dying City" also explores love, betrayal and sexuality - but in a totally different style.

This play, written in 2007, is shockingly contemporary. It looks almost like a film set with all-modern furniture and appliances; the actors use cell phones and discuss e-mail and current TV shows.

Director Ryan Conarro told me the thematic starting point for the award-winning play by Christopher Shinn was the abuses at Abu Ghraib. The play's title refers to Baghdad, though it is set in downtown Manhattan post 9/11.

There are only two actors in this tight, slightly creepy, well crafted play. Jennifer Lagundino, in her Juneau stage debut, searingly captures the emotionally tortured therapist who lost her husband in Iraq a year ago. The drama centers around a visit from the dead soldier's identical twin brother, Peter, a complex role played with confidence by Enrique Bravo.

The audience surrounds the stage on four sides as though to invite dissection of the personal lives of the central characters: Kelly, the war widow coming to grips with her husband's infidelity and Peter, the self-absorbed gay actor and twin brother who barges in on Kelly unannounced to try to claim a place in her heart. Bravo also plays the soldier, in a few tense flashback scenes where the ambiguities of the marriage are revealed.

Ms. Lagundino is absolutely compelling in her portrayal of a kind but anguished woman whose life has come unraveled. Because the staging is in the round, and there are only two actors, they are fully "on" the entire 90 minutes of the play. Both actors actively fill up the space, and the realism is heightened not only by their fluent command of the script but by continuing to develop their characters during periods of rigid silence.

Lagundino engages in distinctly different mannerisms towards the twins, which alleviates any confusion as to which role Bravo is playing at any given moment. This allows Bravo, with minimal distinguishing gestures (little wrist flicks when he's playing Peter, a more stolid, athletic stance when he's Craig) to focus on delivering the message of this sophisticated but raw script.

Thunder Mountain Theatre Project states as its mission to "explore social, cultural and political issues of our time." This play gets all that: how people terrified of death or love can renounce responsibility and become depraved, or drugged; how depression is medicated (valium, xanax, prozac, paxil are all mentioned disparagingly) and how intimacy is faked.

More questions than answers are provided. Can we recover from abuse? Can community truly palliate death and disease? Do network tools actually improve communication? The play is beautifully written and can be funny at times, as when Kelly quips, "I thought everyone would be talking about sex, but it's food."

But mostly, "Dying City" is hard, clear and gut wrenching, like swallowing a diamond.

• Emily Kane can be reached at DoctorEm@aol.com.



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