Saturday, October 12, 2013

Fictional Murders Powerfully Realized

By James E. Trainor III
Photos by Elisabeth Ross

Christian Drollinger
Iowa City - In the early days of the Internet, before Skype and sexting and endless streams of selfies, cybersex was had in IRC (Internet Relay Chat) rooms populated primarily by lonely men and unsupervised teenage boys. Mike Moran's new play Fictional Murders begins here, and while it may seem like an unconventional setting, I can assure you Boy (Christian Drollinger) is an unconventional protagonist to match. Boy is a highly imaginative and desperately lonely teen who's exploring not only his sexuality but also his deeper need to have any lasting feeling at all. Mark (Aaron Case), his, well, mark, is a young athlete, more confident, more masculine, and a good deal simpler. When Boy gets the idea to invent the willing young Juli (Kelly Garrett) to fulfill Mark's needs and kill a boring afternoon, he sets the stage for a drama that grows more dangerous and intriguing with every keystroke.

Moran's play involves a fascinating and often quite comic web of deceit, centered around the overactive imagination of Boy. Drollinger does a great job of realizing this character, a self-centered but highly sensitive teen. He plays the humorous moments of the monologues well without ever losing the weight of the situation. His expressions and his inflections are believable for a teenager, and his partner work, not only with Case but with the characters Boy creates, is very effective. Boy, in addition to talking to Mark as "John," his true self if he has one, parades Juli in front of Mark, then kills her, then assumes the identity of a mysterious Stalker (Rex VanDorpe), Janet (Heidi Bibler), and finally Mary (Meg Dobbs), in an elaborate scheme he seems to be making up as he goes along. It's a conceit that works very well onstage, because we get to see Boy at the same time as his sock puppets, we see them talk at the same time, exchange glances, even struggle for control of the scenario.

Fictional Murders has a great plot, but the subject matter makes it difficult to portray without some innovative directing. This is where director Matt Falduto comes in. By placing the action on a traverse stage, so that two sets of audience chairs directly face each other with the action in the middle, Falduto creates a very intimate and very dynamic space to work in. With the only set furniture being two rolling chairs with keyboards attached, he establishes clear rules for where is reality and where is cyberspace, and for what Boy and his chat creations are allowed to do. These choices reinforce the action of the play quite well: when Juli is seducing Mark, she floats behind him, occasionally whispering in his ear, occasionally standing far behind him and playing puppet master, sometimes hanging her head and going silent in the background as Boy agonizes over what he should do. Only when the scene culminates does she enter the space between the two boys, and then she shares her character with Boy, speaking together, trading places, sandwiching Mark. The direction is done with care and the actors are very tuned in to each other; the effect is that we see the layers of fantasy and reality all onstage at the same time.

Aaron Case and Kelly Garrett
While it may sound tasteless to put cybersex on stage, this scene is somehow more sensual than sleazy, at least until the shine wears off, and then it is crude and rude and very very funny. The whole thing sets the plot rolling wonderfully as well; we know who Mark is, and we know he's complete putty in Boy's hands, and we wonder what Boy is going to do with this perverse power he's found. What started as a bawdy stream of masturbation jokes turns quickly into something between a cautionary tale and a self-destructive revenge play, and Moran isn't going to let us off the hook until it's played itself out. I won't go deeply into details here, but the action that follows Boy's initial experiment is intense, original, and very imaginative. Boy becomes something of a master storyteller, conjuring more and more fanciful characters out of thin air, for darker and darker purposes. Case's acting is particularly effective here, as we see a kid who was at first out for a good time completely drawn in to a world of intrigue. His sense of comic timing, his attentive engagement with the fantasy females, and his intuitive connection with Drollinger all make the character of Mark come to life in Case.

The traverse staging is a bold choice, as it limits the options in blocking, but it works because it very much solves the problem of sitting in front of a computer the entire play. However, this choice makes lighting the piece quite a challenge. With the limits of the space as far as lighting instruments and places to hang them, lighting this show in a natural way would be very difficult. So Falduto (who designed the lights himself) seems to have opted for a stylized look, with striking bright light at long angles, lighting the actors from opposite ends and casting long shadows behind. This works, for the most part, because very little of the play takes place in conventional reality, and much of it is played at the extreme ends of the stage. However, when the action is in the middle, the actors cast shadows over each other, and they can't get very close to the audience without leaving their pool. This is the classic dilemma of leaving the proscenium: you simply have to have more lights, at more angles, if you want people to be seen. The instances when it is problematic are infrequent, however, and the innovative setup more than makes up for it.

Falduto should be commended for taking on a challenging script to stage and bringing it to such a vibrant life. Moran should be commended for his very dark, very funny, very insightful story. Lastly, Dreamwell should be commended for taking a risk and staging a brand new play. It's not very common for a community theatre to take a risk on an unproven script, and in this case it was certainly worth it. So go see Fictional Murders. You won't regret it.

Fictional Murders runs through October 19, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Tickets available at the Dreamwell website.

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