Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Spaced-Out Odyssey

Greg Romero's "The Milky Way Cabaret" floats across the universe at Audacity Theatre Lab

by Mark Lowry/
Published Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A magician, two clowns and an Alice in Wonderland-esque girl: These are characters that should make you feel all warm inside, right?

Not so fast. In Greg Romero's time-trippin' play The Milky Way Cabaret, currently being staged by Audacity Theatre Lab at Teatro Dallas, it's no so cut-and-dry.

The magician is Arnie (the incomparable Jeff Swearingen), an alcoholic whose tricks are fading and wife Lorraine (Tristy Wyly) has filed for divorce. The sadistic clowns are Buzz (Tyson Rinehart) and Charlotte (Rhianna Mack), who have tragic pasts and are really assassins on a mission. And the magic-loving girl, named Alice (Angela Parsons), is the daughter of Arnie and Lorraine and a victim of her parents' separation. She's on her own mission, risking danger to travel through a series of cosmic wormholes from 2037 back to 2009, perhaps to change everyone's destiny.

Milky Way is the second of three plays by Louisiana-bred and onetime Texas resident Greg Romero (now based in Philadelphia) to be produced by Audacity. The first was another universe-crossing, non-linear piece, The Most Beautiful Lullaby Ever Heard, in 2008. The third will come in 2010.

This middle play, directed and designed by Brad McEntire, is an absurdist construct that might be too easily chalked up as merely "interesting" if it weren't for the sparkling banter between Buzz and Charlotte. They sit in chairs on a stage-right platform for the entire show and discuss their pasts and their interests, and develop an affinity for one another. Romero conjures up some vivid imagery in these conversations, most notably in the character of Charlotte, who was born conjoined at the heart to a twin. Both Rinehart and Mack are affecting and wryly humorous.

Speaking of funny, Swearingen is the perfect choice for a down-on-his-luck man whose passion is sleight of hand. Arnie desperately tries to keep his act going (which sometimes involves the audience, painlessly) as Mr. Boss (Jeff Hernandez) threatens to can him. There's at least one sweet scene between Arnie and Lorraine, too, carried out with lovingly deep-rooted emotion by Wyly and the devastating Swearingen. His reaction when she tells him "You used to be great" is priceless.

The play features some good ideas and memorable dialogue, and Romero and McEntire make smart use of pauses and silence. Presented in the teensy Teatro Dallas space and with an even tinier budget, Audacity's staging still feels very much like a work-in-progress—which it is.

As enjoyable as the clown thread and the magician stuff are, though, they're occasionally dragged down by something that seems thrown in for nothing more than shock value, such as the large rubber double-ended dildo with which Mr. Boss beats down Arnie. It's funny for about two seconds, then quickly devolves into the realm of irritatingly pointless.

It's needlessly smug. Surely Romero can come with a device that gets the same point across without being so cocky.

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