Arts » Feature

Greatness Gone By

And tales of urban horror

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At the end of the 80s and into the early 90s, when Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love first hit the stages of Canada and New York, Edmonton was still a high-profile city. Citizens of Alberta's capital certainly absorbed a couple of body blows to their pride in 1988.

The Winter Olympic Games that year were contested in Calgary, Alberta's other big city. Then on August 8 came the day that lives in Canadian infamy: Edmonton Oiler hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings after winning the Stanley Cup in four of the previous five years.

So when Fraser's youthful Edmontonians bemoaned their city's descent into decadence and decay, the place was still booming, and audiences had good reason to view these laments as exaggerated self-pity flavored with melodramatic self-regard. As we all knew, the serial killer on the loose throughout the evening wasn't a peril unique to Edmonton. The freewheeling bisexuality, promiscuity, and violence of this bunch were additional reasons for us to temper our sympathy.

Subsequent revivals of this script have occasionally kidnapped the Canadians across the border into America's urban jungles, but Off-Tryon Theatre's current production, directed by Bradley Moore, merely re-situates them in the new millennium. Although Edmonton still isn't any more blighted than Charlotte, the ennui of Fraser's Canadians now seems markedly less excessive than it was during Bush 41. Nor does the AIDS epidemic seem as strong a component in their malaise as it once was.

Moore judges well in stripping the stage of nearly all scenery and bringing arena-style staging to the Cullman Avenue quonset for the first time. He deftly keeps his cast spread to the four corners of the room, striking a nice balance between discretion and sensationalism in staging the frequent sexual encounters. Atmospherics are superbly styled, but sometimes the point slips away.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Fraser's drama is that it's built around two centers. The vortex more easily perceived is the household of David and Candy, former lovers who are now harmonious roommates independently exploring new avenues of companionship and sexuality. David is openly gay and doesn't believe in love anymore -- until he meets Kane, a busboy at the restaurant where he waits tables after a splash of TV celebrity. He's more comfortable with his old bud Bernie, who boastfully cheats on his wife.

Candy faces more radical choices. At the gym, she's pursued by Jerri, who overcomes Candy's resistance and initiates her into the rites of lesbian sex. At the bar, her neighborhood bartender, Robert, is also eager for action.

Moore's ensemble captures the volatile tensions of the intersecting triangles without glossing over the finer nuances. Keeping himself more tightly in reserve than usual, Glenn Griffin as David gives perhaps his most powerful performance since becoming Off-Tryon's artistic director. Amanda Liles, meanwhile, effectively turns our attention from Candy's vain arrogance to her confused sexual drives.

But what gives Unidentified Human Remains its special tang is its kinky, shamanistic, thematic depths. These emanate largely from the less obvious core of the drama, Benita, who narrates in a singularly oblique style and participates at key moments, merchandising sex and probing psyches.

Sporting a dominatrix bustier that only partially covers a screaming tattoo, Raquel Espinel makes a memorable debut as Benita. Outside the action, what she mostly narrates are tales of urban horror, connecting the rampaging serial killer with the overall disintegration of modern life. Inside the action, Benita exemplifies that disintegration as David's confederate. Before reading Kane's mind for David's edification, she fellates the lad and plunges him into a drugged drowse. Versatile gal.

Andrea King's portrait of Jerri is a small three-part drama by itself, Tom Ollis gives the strongest performance of his life as Bernie, and Bob Walker follows up his fine work as the notorious Bat Boy with a richly textured evocation of Kane. This is challenging adult entertainment. You won't be bored.

Everything about Charlotte Rep's new production of Barefoot in the Park is smartly done. So I enjoyed myself despite the fact that I never saw a single compelling reason why Rep had revived Simon's lightweight comedy. Milking fresh yuks from a 40-year-old script isn't nearly the same as demonstrating enduring relevance -- or making good on the promise in Rep's season brochure to present a "fresh look" at the 1963 smash. Breach of promise, if you ask me.

Copies of 1960s magazines in the lobby -- along with well-timed servings of Sam Cooke's "Having a Party" and Neil Sedaka's "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" in the show's sound design -- convinced me that the idea of freshening the script had gone the way of the dodo bird and Michael Bush. Nostalgia seems to be the driving impulse here.

It's a welcome impulse when it brings Kirtan Coan back to us for the first time since she played Amanda Wingfield in Rep's 1987 production of The Glass Menagerie. The willowy actress is amazingly transformed as Corie's mother, her breathless entrances just the beginning of her hilarious physical comedy. Stephen Ware's return to Rep's mainstage is almost deja vu. Victor Velasco's hair is different from the Tito Morelli "do in the 1991 production of Lend Me a Tenor, but he wears nearly the same fedora.

We haven't seen Brian Robinson at Rep since 1998, but now as Paul he plays the neat freak's drunken spree with a starchy charm. Elizabeth Wells Berkes is not extraordinarily cute as Corie, but she meshes perfectly with the quirkiness of Paul, her mom, and the telephone man. She also throws an adorable tantrum.

Hey, some people adore Neil Simon. True believers shouldn't hesitate. Rep's Barefoot is good clean fun, the theatrical equivalent of a baloney sandwich served on a silver platter.

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