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'Topsy Turvy Mouse' could be powerful with tightening, but as it stands now, it's overly broad

Peter Gil-Sheridan's Topsy Turvy Mouse, being given its world premiere by Borderlands Theater, is one of those can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees plays. It tackles one very broad subject, but presents so many different aspects of that subject that we lose track of what the play is really about.

Does it concern American abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq? That's what we initially suspect, when young Richie comes across a photo of his parents apparently involved in such an act. Or is it maybe about racism and school bullying? That's what it seems when we see Richie, an otherwise nice and smart boy, picking on an Indian classmate named Amit. Or maybe it's about codependency, judging from a scene in which Richie's mom lets her hormones get the better of her hostility when she's dealing with her estranged and manipulative husband. Or maybe, in the second act, it's a murder mystery. Or maybe ... who can tell?

Ultimately, after the play has ended, and you have time to mull it over, Topsy Turvy Mouse is essentially about how there's a slight mean streak in all of us, how it can manifest itself in any number of situations, and how its consequences can be devastating.

While the actors are on stage, the point is hard to get. We are presented with so many different aspects of the basic problem, and so many swiftly changing character dynamics, that the whole thing seems ... well, topsy turvy.

The play takes its title from a story Richie makes up to sort out his own early childhood. It's about a tough woman soldier named Topsy who falls madly in love with another soldier, named Turvy; they produce an offspring named Mouse, who is sent, for reasons unknown, to live with a relative. Mouse is the stand-in for Richie, who was raised in early childhood by his aunt Darla, while his parents were who-knows-where--it's something they never talk about.

It turns out--SPOILER ALERT (skip to the next paragraph if necessary)--they were doing time for their role in the Abu Ghraib abuses; the play is set 15 years in the future, presumably so we can see how some people live in the aftermath of their actions. Apparently, the parents--Sandy and Kenny--cope by pretending Abu Ghraib never happened, and just getting on with their lives.

Richie, though not quite mouselike, is mild-mannered, so it's a shock when we see him picking on the Indian kid. It's only slightly less shocking when we see Richie and his target, Amit, begin to bond over their mutual nerdiness and outcast status. (They're both too skinny and too smart, and thus unpopular.) Together, they channel their adolescent confusion and sublimated hostility into other projects, including teasing a retarded girl who soon goes missing.

Gil-Sheridan can't always make his characters' transitions hold up; Richie and Amit become friends unusually quickly, even if tension does continue to underlie their relationship. And what's this about Richie turning into a bully and targeting the only kids in school weaker than he is? Can this be triggered, as the playwright implies, simply by Kenny's aggressive insistence that Richie can't spend his life as a follower, that, "You've got to play; you've got to tackle"?

Director Barclay Goldsmith does his best to keep the play's various strands from tangling, but on opening night last week, this was still a work in progress, in more ways than one. For instance, some of the acting wasn't quite consistent; Charlie Solis as Richie and Sarah MacMillan as Darla obviously worked hard on their climactic and most intense moments, but in scenes with less at stake, they tended to go a bit flat. This was also true to a lesser extent of Noël Chester as Sandy, although she managed to kick herself into gear without much delay.

The rest of the cast was more consistent, including Jacob Brown as the troubled but good-natured Amit, and Dwayne Palmer as Kenny, perfectly on target and stopping just short of being a full-fledged asshole. Particularly good in more limited parts were Annabelle Nuñez as Amit's mother, tough enough to bring depth to a role that initially flirts with caricature, and Anita Smith-Etheridge as the mother of the missing child; with her two tearful monologues, she nearly walked away with the show.

So what is Topsy Turvy Mouse really about? Perhaps it's about how people, boys and adults, try to control their worst sides by channeling their hatred and bullying into games--games that never make their meanness any less harmful. As one character points out, if you do something, if you act out the game, you're no longer just pretending.

Gil-Sheridan delivers this message just a bit too obliquely. If he makes another pass at the script, and tightens up the action and the characters, he could have a powerful and important play on his hands.

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