The Game of Love and Chance
While “time in a blender” sounds like a promising alcoholic concoction (or a bad combination of Jim Croce and Jimmy Buffett, take your pick), the phrase actually applies to an intoxicating production at Deep Dish Theater.

The Game of Love and Chance is a classic French comedy from the early 1700s, based on broadly drawn conventions of commedia dell’arte–that is, when its characters aren’t stripping post-modern gears in this deft and frequently daft production. With director Tony Lea egging on a talented cast, the famed “fourth wall” becomes little more than a shower curtain through which we play peek-a-boo with the 18th century. At one point, a character self-referentially calls the next scene in the play “the next scene.” What’s next, a laugh track?

Actually, given a packed opening night audience’s wholesale amusement, the answer to that would be “yes.”

At what would later be identified as the twilight of French aristocracy, a forward-thinking young woman named Sylvia elects to derange her arranged marriage to Dorante–at least in part–by trading identities with her chambermaid, Lisette, prior to first meeting him. Through this subterfuge, she can ostensibly watch him without being watched and take the true measure of the man. Unbeknownst to her, the man in question will elect to do likewise with his manservant, leaving two clueless young aristocrats to watch each other’s servants put on airs.

The sadistic edge to these affairs lies in the fact that Sylvia’s father Orgon and brother Mario are aware of what’s going on, and deliberately exacerbate the situation for their own amusement. And sadistic is not too extreme a word, given the levels of discomfort and despair ultimately visited upon two sets of lovers here–since sacred symmetry mandates that servant falls for servant as well.

Not only does the 18th century’s sense of humor have teeth, it also has a way of turning on you. In this production, the word “boy” takes on a particularly sinister edge when Byron Jennings’ character Mario uses it on Michael Brocki’s Dorante. Later, when tables are in mid-turn and lover’s identities only half revealed, Mario helpfully insinuates that, while marriage beneath one’s station would be out of the question, a somewhat less than savory long-term liaison with his true love could be arranged under certain circumstances.

Katja Hill’s development as a comic actress is a thing to behold, and her delirium as a perpetually frustrated Sylvia is worth seeing on its own. The hyperbole of Betsy Henderson’s Lisette enchants here, while David Byron Hudson’s delightfully awkward Harlequin draws appreciative winces in nearly every scene. Rick Lonon’s the improbable model of a permissive 1730s parent and Michael Brocki gives a self-effacing turn as Dorante.

Ida Bostian’s costumes are a confection in Rob Hamilton’s country garden, and Lea’s brisk and self-assured direction makes this work one game well worth the playing.

La Ronde
But Deep Dish’s show isn’t the only game in town. Not with Dog and Pony Show running La Ronde over at Manbites Dog.

Arthur Schnitzler’s decidedly cynical 1921 comedy isn’t really a game of love at all. Call it a sexual steeplechase instead–or, more accurately, an eternal, Escher-esque porno version of the 10,000-meter relay race.

And given the predilections of Schnitzler’s 10 characters, chance has nothing to do with the matter: Everyone will wind up in bed (or its facsimile), twice, with different partners, before all is said and done. What’s more, it’s clear this roundelay was in play before we stepped into the room, and that it will continue, ad infinitum, after we have left.

But if the, um, mechanics in this production insures that Tina Turner’s musical question–“what’s love got to do with it?”–will never seriously be dealt with, it’s curious that the same goes for seduction as well. Given Dog and Pony’s fixation up to now on the lowest of common denominators in their occasional Peep! burlesques, this seems more than passing strange. Sex, seduction–the two go hand in hand, don’t they?

Not here, bub–perhaps because seduction requires at least a hypothetical degree of innocence, a quality entirely missing from the characters in this production. In its place, Lissa Brennan directs certain sexual candidates (as opposed to lovers) toward a sort of willful half-myopia, one which unsucessfully aspires to naiveté. Once or twice, it’s funny. The scene in which Wade Dansby III plays a calamitous Young Master in pursuit of Deborah Winstead’s society wife gives two versions of this. More, though not required, are provided.

Since the actors are double-cast, Brennan’s drunk and disorderly Whore is funny, and her Poet’s tribute to Marlena Dietrich later on is a stitch. As a decidedly domme Parlor Maid, Meredith Sause amuses, before Winstead’s Society Wife charade is comically portrayed as another Lost Cause.

So yes, La Ronde is frequently rather funny. It’s also rather narrow. Making almost everyone a constant playa in this piece indicates a strangely flattened dramatic landscape, and a similar imagination.

But after seeing it, I’d say the main problem facing Dog and Pony is that there are only so many shades of jade. Given what appears to be the company’s over-reliance on it, both here and elsewhere, if they don’t run out soon their audience is likely to start.

Intensity is one measure both of actors and directors. Range is another. So far, we’ve seen a lot more of one than we’ve seen the other from Dog and Pony Show.

Once, theater watchers wondered if New World Stage’s new play endeavor, PlayFactory, was ever going to produce anyone else’s scripts besides those of founder Scott Pardue.

A robust production of Erin Pushman’s Moonshine has given us a most satisfactory answer to the question. The financial commitment required to play at BTI’s Kennedy Center, and the integrity displayed in those performances indicates that considerably more than mere lip service is currently being given new playwrights in the New World camp.

It’s poetic that in the works I’ve seen from this company, this generous production constitutes New World Stage’s artistic high water mark to date, characterized by robust characters, full acting commitment and surefooted direction. It’s obvious: a fully-dimensionalized treatment like this gives a playwright so much more information than even the best of staged readings can. Pushman’s work is worthy of such treatment.

At the start of the play, Madelyn Cowell no sooner returns to the rustic mountainside cabin of her beloved grandaddy than she takes the sheets off his moonshine still and plans to fire it up again. Her grandfather, something of a legend in the moonshine trade, was the one who taught her how to make the mountain elixir vitae from a recipe hidden in the old family bible. At the start it seems that her deathbed promise to him–to come make a new batch every year–is the only thing that brings her back from her job as an Atlanta lawyer to her Appalachian home.

But old attachments, both to kin and the heart, begin to evidence themselves soon enough. A complex morality is evinced in the advent of Matthew Clark, a childhood sweetheart now turned minister. The web of conscience and kinship becomes considerably more intricate with the arrival of Madelyn’s Aunt Maybel, a woman who knows more than her fair share about herbs, roots, animals–and judgment.

Pushman demonstrates intimate knowledge of the small towns and countrysides of Southern Appalachia. She knows it’s a place where the austere techniques of passing judgement are frequently taught early.

Thing turned a bit soapy early on in the production when David Klionsky keeps hitting the same notes of guilt and disdain as Matthew. His character blames Madelyn for running away–and appears prepared to make no end of her or us hearing about it. Since this is likely a difficulty with acting and directorial interpretation in places as with the script in others, all should bear in mind that audiences actually have excellent memories: When an actor as competent as Klionsky hits as loud a note as that, it resonates for a good long time and doesn’t need much in the way of reinforcement.

Things plateau for a while in act one when the initial problem of the script keeps being reiterated more than developed. And the folkloric “crisis” which forces Matthew back to Madelyn’s cabin–in order not to cross a black snake on the full moon–rings more like a manufactured plot convenience than an actual Appalachian superstition.

Pushman’s script has a lot of poetry in it–in a very few places, it’s far too obvious as such. But if Bobby Vinson’s about a half-century too young to play Aunt Maybel, the degree to which she channels her spiritual certitude is uncanny.

Actions always have consequences in Maybel’s world. The truly chilling thing about it is that sowing is not the only thing which necessitates reaping–for a lifetime in some cases. Sometimes the intent to sow obligates just as much: If sin’s ultimately in the mind, sometimes it doesn’t matter if you ever actually did anything at all. Thinking is enough to seal your doom–and sometimes others’, too.

The beginner’s difficulties in Pushman’s script are one thing–but the verities she absolutely nails about the religious, sexual and cultural double-binds of home are quite another.

Her characters enact an intricate dance of guilt and attraction on a long, moonlit night, as each grapples with how to best honor the past. Though they make their transit from innocence to experience with stumbles and missteps aplenty, that’s one of the things that makes Moonshine worth imbibing. Cheers. EndBlock