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Grand Drama 

The recent 10th anniversary edition of DramaRama at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) was a rousing, chaotic outpouring of theatrical energies, as always. And, as always, there was a pretty wild variety of acts under the big top.

Certainly, it's exhilarating -- if uncomfortable -- to squeeze into standing-room-only crowds for show after show in both theaters (not to mention the audition room and upstairs gallery). Although, there is also something eerie about this Camp Street Walpurgis Night, where the spirit of drama issues up from the crypt, as it were, and fills the halls with ghostly laughter, only to fade away at cockcrow.

Ghostly laughter! Hardly are the words out than an image of R.J. Tsarov springs to mind -- sauntering around nervously in his black wool cap and frantically working his abacus to see if the attendance goals had been reached. Not an idle occupation, by the way. There's rent to pay. This year, due to the state's Division of the Arts' rejection of the festival's proposal, there would have been no DramaRama at all, if the CAC, Target stores and the Louisiana Children's Museum hadn't offered support.

But the association of Tsarov and ghostly laughter has nothing to do with the strains of administration. It comes from his play Wood Paneling, which closed out the evening at the Bank One theater. The piece concerns a young man named Lon (Greg Di Leo) who can't stand to be touched. His girlfriend (Dawn Faberge) is horrified and disgusted. In desperation, Lon seeks an armless companion from a paraplegic dating service. All this is done with a dead-pan earnestness that makes the well-crafted little tale both weirder and funnier than it sounds in outline.

Wood Paneling was a good example of a determined effort by Tsarov and co-director Richard Read to put the drama back in DramaRama. The boldest attempt I saw was a scene from Tristan Codrescu's production of Salome by Oscar Wilde (which opened this weekend at the UNO Downtown Theatre). Diana Shortes and Brendan McMahon launched into the first meeting of John the Baptist and Herod's notorious stepdaughter amid the never-quite-subdued pandemonium of the overflowing CAC -- and, by some miracle, pulled us all into a psychic black hole of decadence and obsession.

The presentation of original work is one of the goals of DramaRama and this year, there was a healthy crop of new efforts. Paul Werner gave us two scenes from his Hold Fishy Tight. The first show took a comic view of a playwright assailed by rebellious incarnations of his own characters. While this scene remained a bit nebulous, the second settled into a poignant imaginary dialogue between the playwright and his dead father on a fishing trip (well played by Ray Vrazel and John Hammons).

Nebulous comedy was also much in evidence in Jim Fitzmorris' Sexual Sitting Peril, a send-up of film noir, starring the usual (talented) suspects from Red Noses (Gavin Mahlie, Danny Bowen and Ron Gural, plus Amy Alvarez, Adriana Bate and Lara Grice). Despite the impeccable cast, Peril seemed little more than a party skit. But maybe I hadn't yet had enough to drink.

At another point in the evening, however, I thought I had downed a few too many and was seeing double. No sooner had one gorgeous, vacant, well-meaning Barbie exited, when a second gorgeous, vacant, well-meaning Barbie entered. The first Barbie was Nicole Brooks, who came from the back of a closet to find her old friend and owner (played vibrantly by Jen Lindsey) in an entertaining piece by Patricia Bourgeois. The second Barbie was Milwaukee-based performance artist Elizabeth Whitney, who morphed into yet another consumer icon of femininity: Wonder Woman.

Flesh-and-blood cultural icons had a hard time of it in Michael Martin's acidic Verbatim Verboten. Martin has collected transcripts from secret tapes made of celebrities. The large cast did many amusing turns. But, Don Lewis as the hysterical, cornered former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry at the moment of his cocaine bust soared into a realm where the real and the comic are indistinguishable. It was one of those fabulous, fleeting moments of inspiration that stays with you for days.

As always at DramaRama, the merciless law of physics that prohibits one body from being in two places at the same time meant I could not get to many productions. Generally, I went to things that sounded like plays -- which are still outnumbered by dance, stand-up comedy and performance art. But perhaps, it's the very eclecticism of DramaRama that accounts for its success. Whatever drew them there, everyone seemed to be having a grand old time.

click to enlarge Milwaukee-based performance artist Elizabeth Whitney provided a Barbie who morphs into Wonder Woman during the always-eclectic and often-entertaining DramaRama.
  • Milwaukee-based performance artist Elizabeth Whitney provided a Barbie who morphs into Wonder Woman during the always-eclectic and often-entertaining DramaRama.


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