Friday, May 18, 2012

Parallel Lives Packs a Universe Into One Evening

By James E. Trainor III

Photos by Rob Merritt

Fourth Room - There's a new theatre company in the Corridor, which is always an exciting time for me. It's fun to anticipate what they'll produce, what the focus will be, to see the evolution from the beginning. The energy and passion that's needed to get such a project off the ground is infectious, and it's invigorating just to be a fly on the wall.

There are some familiar faces listed as the core company of Fourth Room Theatre - you've probably seen Bryant Duffy, Ottavia De Luca, Rachel Howell, Matthew James, Kehry Anson Lane, K. Michael Moore, Kate Thompson, and Angie Toomsen in a number of productions in the area - and a common thread that seems to unite the names listed is the sheer level of skill and commitment that goes into everything they do. Kehry Anson Lane describes the company's focus as "project-driven work;" instead of announcing a full season we'll see individual, unique productions, so keep checking back for updates on what's coming next.

It's an exciting time to be a theatregoer, yes -- but the play's the thing, so let's move on to the group's second production, the follow-up to last year's Closer: Ottavia De Luca and Rachel Korach Howell in Parallel Lives

The conceit of Parallel Lives, written by Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney, is to explore the lives of a number of characters in a variety of (mostly) comic situations. It's a taxing two-hander, with a lot of back-and-forth and a script that flows seamlessly from laugh-out-loud comedy to thoughtful reverie.

Fourth Room chose a space in Sycamore Mall to perform this piece (right next to Shield's Sewing). The room is large and flexible while still being intimate. A few acting blocks and some simple props create a whole world for the actors to play in, and Dylan Wheeler's simple lighting rig adds just the right amount of texture.

It's always a delight to see De Luca or Howell perform, and Parallel Lives is no exception. They work extremely well together, feeding off of each other and creating bubbles of comic energy that suddenly burst into showers of despair and sadness. Their interactions, even when silly, are crushingly honest, and it's rare to see two performers listen to each other so carefully. The timing is impeccable, whether the rhythmic frenzy of the beginning of "God," or the steady mock reverence of the hilarious performance art parody "Sister Woman Sister."

Ottavia De Luca's accent work is polished and believable -- an important detail, because Parallel Lives stretches across several ethnicities and age groups. Her physical choices are extremely specific and read well not only in the way they flesh out a character but in the way she responds to Howell; the quality of her attention to her scene partner speaks volumes, and the smallest gesture goes a long way in the storytelling. In "Kris and Jeff," the dance of college courtship is quite clear in the way De Luca's frat boy watches and responds to Howell's manic sorority girl. In "God," the young girl watches very carefully to gauge the effect of her fire-and-brimstone fantasy on her audience. Finally, her skill at pantomime is astounding, and "Silent Torture" wraps a woman's entire life into an excruciatingly dull and often painful morning ritual, without using a single prop or speaking a single word.

Rachel Korach Howell's accent work is equally well-executed, and her character choices are big, bold, and lots of fun. Howell's acting style is characterized by an abundance of courage; she throws her entire physical and emotional being into a character, a bit, or a comic overstatement. It's extremely successful in Parallel Lives, a roller coaster of a show with a variety of very colorful characters. Kris' mile-a-minute motormouth is as entertaining as Hank's drunken, repetitive country drawl, and all of it is very closely engaged with her scene partner; DeLuca is afforded plenty of opportunities for comic reactions to Howell's outrageous antics.

At the same time, everything comes from a real place of gut honesty, exaggerations or no. When Madeline -- an older woman who is discovering women's studies, organic food and performance art for the first time -- is left alone on stage to give a monologue about accepting her gay nephew, the broad character choices that made us guffaw remain, but the story suddenly gets a great deal more real. Howell has found, in this cartoon of a woman, a real person with sincere struggles, and above all a very human drive to be decent. So it is with Kris, who dares to stand up for a drag queen at Denny's... and with the pro-life woman who alternates between coming up with hateful rhetoric and wondering if her own abortion was maybe the right path after all.

For all the fun and silliness, the stakes are pretty big.
Parallel Lives is one of those pieces that draws us in with laughter, like a kid at a candy store, then sits us down in a grown-up chair and asks us hard questions. One of those questions is, "what does it mean to be women in the modern age?" It's answered in a lot of ways, from the brash swagger that shrugs off shame and bashfulness in "Period Piece" to the befuddled exploration of freedom and feminist rhetoric in "Las Hermanas," to the fatigued resignation that accompanies the grotesque grooming in "Silent Torture."

Questions of destiny and purpose are explored in "God" as characters struggle with the role of religion in their lives. The girls and women in the piece explore the idea of sin, confessing to their priests and to each other, and try to understand how the rules of the Catholic Church apply to their everyday lives. They're not sure what all this religious baggage does for them, but at the same time, they're not ready to shed it -- especially in moments of crisis. This is juxtaposed with a comic creationism in "Supreme Beings," as a couple of creative angels give us insight into why white people are so uptight and how pregnancy was invented.

Finally, the intricacies of human relationships are examined, as we see how people can provide moral support, as Gina attempts to do for her abused and neglected friend in "Annette and Gina," or how we can complete fail a person and tar a relationship, as in "Hank and Karen Sue," where a bit of playful flirting becomes something a bit more intense, a bit more scary, and a lot more sad.

None of these issues are easy, and Parallel Lives doesn't have easy answers. That's fine; part of its staying power is that it isn't polemic, and it isn't the job of art to give us answers. It's the job of art to show us -- in an entertaining way -- just how complex the questions are. This script does that extremely well, and De Luca and Howell perform it with tireless energy, serious skill, and above all the playful sense of exploration that is the driving force behind any dedicated theatre artist.

If you see only one show this weekend, make it Parallel Lives. It's everything that's right with local theatre.

Parallel Lives plays May 18 - 20 (7:30 Friday & Saturday, 2:00 Sunday) at the Sycamore Mall in Iowa City. Tickets are $12.

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