Caution and calculation have their place in the theatrical enterprise. Having seen their lack on more than one occasion, clearly we want artisans who are careful as they craft characters, sets and scenes, and who treat the plays they encounter with respect. But too much care can give audiences the feeling that we’re guests in a museum, and not visitors in someone’s home. Artists too afraid to touch anything in a play are likely not to make or leave their personal mark on a production or a role. Undue reverence can kill a character or a show just as quickly as its opposite.

Is that what was at play in Hot Summer Night’s rendition of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hit Tin Roof, where too many actors seemed as comfortable with their roles as–well, the fabled feline in the title? Or were other factors like inadequate rehearsal influencing the outcome last Saturday night?

Of the characters we saw on stage, only Lamont Wade seemed to have taken total occupancy of Big Daddy, the primal, profane planter who’s bootstrapped himself from humble beginnings into ownership of the largest plantation on the Mississippi Delta. In this production, Wade’s booming voice, clapping hands and disconcertingly direct manner suggest a fundamentalist preacher under full sail in his pulpit, albeit one with an earthier sermon than most.

Given the context, a farming metaphor seems appropriate. Big Daddy’s plant seemed to be the only one to have been adequately watered in director Kenny Gannon’s garden. A sense of tentativity haunts most of the other characters on stage.

In the play, older brother Gooper and his wife, Mae, compete for Big Daddy’s affections–and ultimate control of the farm–with younger brother (and quickly fading athlete) Brick and his low-bred but ambitious wife, Maggie. If the latter two hope for any future in that part of Mississippi, this unhappily married couple had better keep up appearances better than either has of late.

Though Hope Hynes hits the snippy notes of Mae and Chris Chappell’s Gooper suggests the smug self-rightousness of a certain small-time Texas oilman, both characters still seemed underinflated.

A similar fate found Melissa Kite’s reading of Maggie far too careful–and apparently still uncertain. Though her loneliness rang true, her character’s sensuality and desires remained far too bridled; her steel-plated survival instincts too concealed, too hypothetical.

Just as speculative? What lurked behind the emotional brick wall Michael Hunsaker’s Brick presented to the world. Hunsaker’s injured athlete scores repeatedly when it comes to looks and stoicism. But what the character believes or knows about the inside life–including the nature of his relationship with deceased boon companion and teammate Skipper–still seems unbroken earth.

Like others on stage, this Brick is adept with a cool one-liner. But where most of these characters must be capable of lashing out, fangs bared and hissing, when their self-interests are endangered, this group of scaredy cats too frequently stays busy merely pawing at one other.

Costumier Carson Mather and particularly hair and makeup artist Gina Kelly help to appropriately render Pauline Cobrda’s Big Mama the most visually repellant character we’ve seen on stage in months. Their withering touches also give Mae’s character (and her children, the “no-neck monsters” of the script) the dubious benefits of Southern fashion in the 1950s, while Sonya Drum’s set suggests the most with the least.

But similarly minimal touches do not complete a number of characters we meet in this production, where too much reverence, too little time (or both) prevents actors and audiences from fully submerging into Williams’ catty Southern world.

Though the joke at the center of The Underpants can be told in under three minutes–and the temptation to do so here is nearly overwhelming–for the most part we’re glad comedian Steve Martin took the long way around in this amusing one-act from Actors Comedy Lab. In it, a young Düsseldorf housewife named Louise changes the course of several people’s lives on an otherwise ordinary day when her titled undergarments slip while the king passes in a parade.

For all we know, the ensuing brouhaha in this bit of theatrical fluff signals the dawn of feminism. Wait a minute–on second thought, probably not.

Morrisa Nagel gives substance to the unhappy Louise, chafing away under the mores of 19th-century German society. Rob Jenkins plays Theo, the obtuse husband, to hissable perfection. Barbette Hunter plays upstairs neighbor and agent provocateuse Gertrude with improbable delight. David McClutchey and Jack Prather credibly inhabit the fairly flimsy roles of competing suitors, Frank and Benjamin, before Bob Dean’s milquetoast Klinglehoff gets tangled in affairs.

The appreciative groans from the audience when the final jokes hit home defined a risible trifle, but one that might well have benefited from an intermission in the midst.

Bare Theatre is serious about that “not appropriate for under 10” advisory for their production of Titus Andronicus this weekend. Though some of the members in this teens-to-20s cast aren’t a lot older than their blackout audience, the group has been working with an artistic team that’s far more seasoned–including a professional fight choreographer–to stage Shakespeare’s goriest drama by far with “extreme physicality.”

As a result, children will be running–and playing–with knives. With bad intent, and at very high velocity.

By the end, warns director Carmen Maria-Mandley, we should be thinking Tarantino, not Bard of Stratford.

The show runs this weekend only–Wednesday through Sunday–at Common Ground Theater. Call 771-3281 for tickets and info.

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