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Lion in the Streets/Fable 

LION IN THE STREETS

Roadworks Productions

at Synergy Center

FABLE

Cook County Theatre Department

In the opening scene of Lion in the Streets, a group of children torment a lonely little Portuguese girl because she's dirty, different, and lost--easy prey. They form quickly into a mob, they throw rocks, they try to drive her from their neighborhood. It's the sort of out-and-out nasty behavior we think of adults shaking their heads at; but in Canadian playwright Judith Thompson's portrait of an urban neighborhood, the adults pick up where their kids leave off. In Thompson's view society is essentially a group of adult-sized children with jobs and sex lives and cocktail parties: beneath their civilized veneer, they're driven by the same fears we expect to find in children but tend not to recognize in ourselves--fear of outsiders, fear of being left alone, fear of death.

Thompson's play is never less than interesting--in fact, it's excruciatingly interesting, in the way a roadside accident (found here) is interesting. The challenge in producing this play is to make it bearable; there is so much despair and humiliation and betrayal--most of it ringing very true--that it could become well nigh unwatchable.

Roadworks Productions offers a very watchable production, a midwest premiere, sacrificing little of Thompson's raw fatalism but cushioning it with a highly theatrical staging that includes several dances (beautifully choreographed by Peter Carpenter) echoing the play's action. In fact director Abby Epstein begins the play by putting Isobel--the lost girl who turns out to be a ghost searching the neighborhood for her killer--at the center of a long, involved dance with the rest of the ensemble (or neighborhood) in which she alternately tries to join and flee them. It's an enthralling introduction, well executed by the ensemble and filled with foreboding.

Isobel's subsequent journey is episodic, taking her to the homes and hearts of her neighbors, most of whom never notice this plaintive ghost, wrapped up as they are in their own troubles and machinations. The lion of the title lives in these streets, and it can strike at any time--in the form of infidelity, bone cancer, cerebral palsy, a stranger in a long silver car. A frustrated actor emotionally blackmails his fiancee into admitting that the rape she suffered six years ago was her fault--and rewards her by promising to go pick out a china pattern. A businessman confronts a past homosexual experience by locating and browbeating the childhood friend who shared it, a friend he'd long since abandoned and betrayed. A PTA meeting (or its equivalent) turns ugly with a single accusation, and a hard-edged working mother ends up kicking the person with cerebral palsy she was sent by the local paper to interview.

Roadworks handles these ugly episodes with unflinching honesty, delivering fully faceted human beings rather than childish monsters. The wide-eyed Isobel (Meg Brogan, whose sorrowful glance continues to haunt me) wanders fearfully around the edges of the action, looking for her personal monster and finding instead another strung-out human being who believes he treated her tenderly when he heeded her fear of strangulation and hit her over the head with a brick instead.

The ensemble (Debbie Bisno, Scott Denny, Brenda Lasker, Patrick McNulty, and Kirsten Nelson) prove themselves a very thorough and versatile bunch, but they do fall down a bit when it comes to portraying the more mainstream types, missing the black humor they've caught so well with other characters. An episode in which a housewife confronts her husband's mistress and humiliates herself in an attempt to win him back at a cocktail party (with her friends holding their laughter until she leaves) falls terribly flat. The characters are too broadly drawn, and the pathos is indulged to the limit--a scene that should make us feel terrible for laughing leaves us cold. The same problems crop up in another scene in which a blue-collar housewife with bone cancer confides to her friend that she intends to die like Ophelia "from that play by Shakespeare" but needs the friend's help to pull it off. It's as if both actors and director have failed to fully imagine these situations and characters.

But these are only 2 episodes out of 13, and the dancing, under set designer Michael Lapthorn's semicircle of street lights and accompanied by Canton Becker's driving original music, goes a long way toward making up for such lapses.

"Man's actions result in consequences. Actions result from a desire for a thing." This is a fine explanation for what drives the hero (or the monster, or the princess) in any classic fairy tale. In Richard Maxwell's Fable, now playing at the Cook County Theatre Department, this bit of information is imparted by a classic storybook figure--the Wiseman (Brian Mendes). This Wiseman, however, differs from most in that he's dressed only in a pair of B.V.D.s, a T-shirt, and blue socks. Which makes about as much sense as having a deadpan and dapper Mon- ster (Maxwell) in a tuxedo and earplugs. While I can make some sense out of the Princess (Kate Gleason) wearing a business suit

Most puzzling of all, actions in Fable do not seem to result from a desire for a thing. But that's all right, because the press release assures me that this is an absurdist and nonlinear reworking of the structure and style of mythic tales. For those of you without a press release, it's still OK, because most of it's pretty damn funny, with some goofily awkward choreography and a cast that has a great way with a non sequitur. While the Princess, captured by a junior executive, muses on the evils of capitalism, the Monster sings of love and cows, the Wiseman cries over the broken handset of a telephone, and the knights practice their putting.

The sheer charm and comic finesse of the ensemble make the first act not only intriguing but hilarious. They can't keep it up forever, though, and the second act falls far short, hav- ing nowhere to go and nothing to achieve, not even the telling of a story. Tired of absurdities, I searched for some sort of shape, and was ultimately disappointed. Maxwell doesn't seem to have much to say about the classic fairy tale, although he makes it into fairly good farce, at least for a while.

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