Burning Coal Theatre
Through Nov. 23

It’s a point most have forgotten at this pointif they ever knew it to begin with. But when Guillaume Apollinaire originally attached the French prefix sur to the word real to first coin the term surrealism, the neologism first meant “above the real” or “super-real”; not, in short, its most popular contemporary reading”unreal.”

Unfortunately, that feeling crowds out more desirable ones at a number of points during Hysteria, Terry Johnson’s uneven comedy-drama now showing at Raleigh’s Burning Coal Theatre. The weakest sections of Johnson’s neither-fish-nor-fowl script involve a creaky hide-and-seek plot point: a visit from the daughter of a former patient, a potential scandal that, naturally, must be hidden from Freud’s frienemy, Abraham Yahuda. When the appearance of surrealist Salvador Dalí adds further complications, the playwright’s hellzapoppin’ ambitions are transparentbut the improbable collisions that follow only momentarily achieve critical mass. While it is cunning when events conspire to pose Freud in a head bandage with bunny ears, holding a bicycle covered with snails, his right hand encased in a boot when he first meets Dalí, the tiresome mechanics of the “who’s in the closet” plot device enervate us shortly after.

We see strong acting here, from Kenny Gannon as Freud, nearing death from cancer of the jaw, and Brian Linden’s manic turn as Dalí. But newcomer Emilie Stark-Menneg’s geniustotal submersion in a character’s momentalso sacrifices a coherent through-line at points, as a Jessica who’s so committed to the present emotional state that all changes seem out of the blue; more unreal than surreal.

Blood Done Sign My Name
Mike Wiley Productions
Sheafer Theater, Duke University
Closed Nov. 9

UNC-Chapel Hill professor Paul Ferguson instilled in his charges a fierce, specific love for what we called “the unstagables”: speculative, literary works, like “Wolfland” or “A Poetics for Bullies,” which clearly couldn’t be adapted for live theaterand which he proceeded to adapt anyway.

These differed from less challenging texts that could, conceivably, be produced by a moderate army of actors on a series of elaborate sets. They were appropriate, teachers like Andrea Martin notedwith the straightest of facesfor the one-person show.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that playwright and performer Mike Wiley comes from a similar background. In recent years, he’d gained note as an adaptor of literature as well as a performer, staging theatrical works with multiple charactersas the only actor on stage.

Then his 2006 production, Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till, shook audiences with an unblinking look at the titled atrocity. For my money, it was one of the best one-person shows performed here in the last 20 years.

Wiley’s earlier texts, however, were merely very difficult. With his current show, Blood Done Sign My Name, he’s attempted the impossible.

I wish I were speaking a bit more figuratively than I actually am. For those already familiar with Duke professor Timothy Tyson’s award-winning 2004 autobiographical history of a racially motivated slaying in Oxford, N.C., no doubt the big questions are already obvious. How do you cut a story that sweeping down to size? And then what do you do with that large a cast of vivid characters?

Wiley remarkably solves the cutting issue through very skillful editing, daringly breaking the story apart and then rearranging sections, paragraphs and sometimes individual sentences from completely different parts of the book together to make a new and, for the most part, seamless work.

Which brings us to the issue of the cast. By now, Wiley is at the top of his game when it comes to generating a series of distinct charactersand shifting from one to another of them in about the twinkling of an eye. In Blood we see vivid portrayalsin some cases, drop-dead impersonationsof many in the broad community that countenanced or critiqued the 1970 murder of “Dickey” Marrow, from the Rev. Vernon Tyson, the writer’s anti-segregationist father, to Robert Teel, the unrepentant murderer an all-white jury set free.

But after Wiley introduced and embodied the 20th characterthat’s no exaggerationfrom Tyson’s book during the show, I basically stopped counting. Perhaps he could keep track of that many people simultaneously without name tags, but we in the audience couldn’tat least not always.

During Act One and the opening of Act Two, Wiley repeatedly uses the rubric of miming a tape recorder and intoning the name of the speakers, one or two paragraphs into their testimony, to identify them. The device works, but it wasn’t always utilized. By the middle of the second act, we weren’t always certain whose presence we were in from moment to moment, and the performance didn’t always make it clear.

At times, the actor’s razor-sharp transitions gave the effect of bewildered characters being literally spun about by history. At others, as much as I hate to say it, the relentless march from segue to segue felt more like channel surfing.

When Wiley’s adaptation is working, we have the sense of a group of people surrounding a historical tragedy from all sides, all points of view, and that they are attempting to somehow stitch up the breach of justice that was torn in the fabric of our culture in the 1970s. When it isn’t, in the second act, there’s the sense of piling onnow who’s this person?without adding appreciably to our insight.

All of which makes Blood Done Sign My Name the most ambitious work Wiley’s attempted, perhaps, but not the most successful. Then again, he was attempting the impossible.

Correction (Nov. 13, 2008): The name of the author of Hysteria is Terry Johnson.