Absorbing, trenchant Occupant at WingSpan

Albee’s premise for Occupant is deceptively simple. A character known simply as “The Man” posthumously interviews the ghost of ground-breaking sculptor Louise Nevelson. You would think such an exchange would be straightforward, and in some ways it is. Using a set (by Nick Brethauer) that features some of Nevelson’s sculptures and music reminiscent of PBS talk shows from the 70’s, Occupant asks the sort of questions we might expect, before delving into what might be construed as intrusive. In the world we currently inhabit, it’s hard to imagine any inquiry that exceeds the lines of propriety. Celebrities discuss deeply personal issues without batting an eye, and interviewers are allowed latitude past polite evasion. The difference in Occupant is Nevelson’s interrogator, while certainly not aggressive, has an annoying habit of responding with passive disdain. If you say so, or Whatever you say. This sort of thing. Sometimes Nevelson takes the bait, and sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she’s appalled by his sheer audacity.

Nevelson’s first response is surprise the host needs to tell the audience who she is, as if nobody has heard of her phenomenal career. I think the allure of this piece is that Edward Albee wants to tap the core of what made Nevelson unique. Occupant was published in 2001 and we can only speculate if the trend away from deferentially laudatory biographies (though respectful) had begun at that time. Albee doesn’t use any of the predictable hocus-pocus you might expect from a drama that includes a deceased character. There seems to be a very wide discrepancy between how Nevelson wants to be remembered and the sometimes tawdry, often painful details that The Man persistently seeks. Nevelson repeatedly struggles to maintain her composure when he catches her off guard, and is certainly not above lambasting him with an impassioned Fuck off.

Behind the interviewer’s desire to avoid strewing garlands at Nevelson’s feet, and her refusal to be degraded in front of strangers, lies the question of how much does a famous success owe their public, and how does anyone (even a genius) forgive themselves, with all their ghastly flaws? A female celebrity was probably a better choice. Notorious examples, such as Hitchcock, Einstein and Picasso probably had little problem granting atonement to themselves. Being men. Nevelson discusses her failures as a mother, and her infidelities. But grudgingly. Albee seems to be aiming to show the woman, the brilliant, quirky, defiantly unique artist, with her strange worldview and regrettable mistakes. Nevelson comes off as achingly human. But then, we also begin to grasp the chutzpah it took her to break out and shock the world, as any significant sculptor must.

Occupant plays October 5th-21st, 2017. WingSpan Theatre Company. The Bath House Cultural Center. 521 East Lawther Drive, Dallas, Texas 75218. 214-675-6573. www.wingspantheatre.com

See Outcry’s Bat Boy and take a dip in the darkside

It takes a special kind of dementia, to take a creepy, somewhat cynical, depraved yet heartfelt piece like Bat Boy the Musical, and do justice to it on the stage. Outcry Theatre has that marvelous, intelligent, yet rare dementia. You can’t let the audience know you’re in on the joke. The performers must be utterly convincing and convinced, yet we, in the audience, are never quite sure when it’s OK to laugh. Ironically, I can think of few times (if any) when laughter is inappropriate. You see, the creators of Bat Boy (Keyth Farley and Brian Flemming (Book) Laurence O’Keefe (Music and Lyrics) don’t deny that Edgar, the Bat Boy is a freak of nature, who deserves our sympathy. They just also happen to find the situation hilariously funny.

The Bat Boy has struck fear into the hearts of the townsfolk, though he truly means no harm. He is taken into the home of Dr. Thomas and Meredith Parker, and their teenage daughter Shelley. The Parkers feed, clothe, and educate Edgar in the social graces, which he absorbs with facility and gratitude. Against the veterinarian’s better judgment, Meredith and Shelley take Edgar to a revival. While the Bat Boy has a brief taste of acceptance, the social experiment soon turns into a debacle and the congregation, a lynch mob. Before it’s all over, the depth of the Parker family’s dysfunction will be explored, as well as the limitations of Christian tolerance and Edgar’s dubious conception.

Outcry Theatre has staged Bat Boy the Musical, with its layers of satire, deliciously distasteful content, humanity, and (so repugnant it’s ridiculous) transgression, and transmogrified it into an insanely improbable evening of comic delight. An innocent lab assistant is molested by bats, woodland creatures sing and engage in sexual congress, drag costuming consists of glasses and a wig. You find yourself thinking you shouldn’t laugh, but it happens anyway. What could be better? This kind of (so awful it’s great) humor is in vogue lately, you can find it nearly everywhere. But few have the chops, savvy, and pitch perfect gift for tone that Outcry does. They carry it off with fluid, intuitive finesse. Needless to say, October is the perfect time of year to enjoy this brilliant, juicy lunacy. It will tickle you to the bone.

Outcry Theatre presents Bat Boy the Musical, playing through October 6th- 15th, 2017. Black box at WaterTower Theatre. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. (972) 836-7206. www.outcrytheatre.com

Touching, bittersweet Bus Stop at Rover

A preeminent playwright of the American theatre canon, William Inge produced some of our most enduring dramas. Picnic, Come Back Little Sheba, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and of course, Bus Stop. His characters are not especially noble or immoral, usually ordinary (if often disillusioned) folks. Grace’s Diner is the layover for bus passengers, who, for one reason or another, need to wait before moving on. A blizzard has forced Cherie (a young lounge singer) Bo and Virgil, a couple of cowboys, and Dr. Lyman, an erudite, alcoholic English professor to kill some time. There is also Carl the bus driver, Will the sheriff, and Elma, the bright high school student, who helps Grace at the diner. In one way or another (with the possible exception of Will) they are all broken. Cherie’s romantic experience exceeds her life experience, Grace needs lovemaking but isn’t ready to live with a man, Bo wants a wife but has no charm, and so on. One by one, we learn the details of each one’s story, as they pass the time till the road clears.

My buddy Michael pointed out that, underneath it all, Bus Stop is really about sex (or the lack thereof) and he’s probably onto something. It might be closer to say that each is trying to deal with their own, personal challenges. And how that works out (or doesn’t) in the bedroom. You could also apply that theme to Inge’s other plays, including his screenplay, Splendor in the Grass. There is a tenderness in how the characters in Bus Stop, stuck with each other’s company, are summarily revealed, but never treated judgmentally. Bo may be obnoxious and full of himself, but nobody says anything hurtful or unkind to him. Inge is careful to show each one’s strengths and weaknesses, their transgressions and humanity.

Rover’s production of Bus Stop is light-hearted and poignant. It’s very clear all the actors are dedicated and giving 100%. One of the hazards of staging a familiar classic, is the possibility of missing subtext and nuance. Often plays that seem plainspoken and straightforward on the surface, have much more happening by way of subtext. Like the best playwrights Inge doesn’t tell us what to think, he just lays it out there and let’s us reach our own conclusions. The more we engage, the deeper we might go. Director Matt Stepan brings a gentleness and warmth to this production.

Rover Dramawerks presents Bus Stop, playing September 14th-October 7th, 2017. 221 West Parker Road, Suite 580, Plano, Texas 75023. 972-849-0358.