My job is not always an easy one. Sure, I get to see some great theater. But I also run into some of the not-so-great. And sometimes, unfortunately, theater that absolutely falls flat. It's hard to write about such a situation because you know good people have invested much time and effort and have simply come up short.
That's a hard call to make. But I fear I have to make it with Beowulf Alley's most recent effort, Dude True Story: Three Tall Tales, a set of three one-act plays by local writer Jimmy Dees, which is the pseudonym of Jim Ambrosek, who is also an actor in the three shorts.
Actually, it's hard to make a judgment about the quality of the scripts because of their clunky presentation. But I think there is some promise to the pieces, which are unconnected to one another by theme or character—as far as I could discern, at least.
I don't think director Susan Arnold is totally at fault, although certainly she must be held responsible to a degree for an often plodding pace and lack of an arc of motion in each of the pieces. The scene changes are also quite awkward, and if she brought considerable inspiration as she interpreted the plays, it's not obvious.
The real drawback is the acting. The actors, most of whom play different characters in each of the pieces, were almost universally in over their heads. Some of them demonstrated moments of credibility, but when the bulk of an entire troupe lacks the skills to represent the characters well and propel them with intention within the action, there is really no chance for a satisfying theater experience.
In fact, the evening was a lesson in how critical the skills of good actors really are, and what happens when some of the most basic skills—like voice, diction and physically inhabiting the character—have not been developed to the extent they need to be. The first play, Hungry Hills Estates, is a riff on David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, which Arnold directed a few months ago for Beowulf Alley. Ambrosek was in that production. The setting is a real estate office manned by Ed (Ambrosek) and Bobby (Matt Brown). A young woman (Robin Carson) walks into the place and says she wants to buy a house or a lot and lets it be known that she playing with her grandma's money. Ed and Bobby smell blood—well, Ed does. In a classic case of overacting, Brown as Bobby shows us he's attracted to the woman, who states that she will be represented by her lawyer, whom she has brought with her. It's a surprising moment when we find out who this lawyer is, and it actually is a pretty funny turn of events. (I won't give away the surprise.) Let's just say there is an unusual show of power from an unlikely character.
Ambrosek has a created a rather fun piece. But I struggled to hear him as Ed, and consequently I'm not really sure what the point was, or if there was one, other than its humor. The small audience must have been mystified as well, because they were unsure when the playlet ended.
The next piece, Tenure or Dust, shows Ambrosek's good recognition of absurd situations and the confluence of strange characters. The scene is a gritty bar where a woman is passed out at a table upon which sits a bottle of vodka. This annoys waiter/stock boy Roy (Brown), who thinks the woman will stiff him because his attempts to rouse her are unsuccessful. A couple come in, carrying some baggage. Roger (Mark Klugheit) is a literature professor at the University of Arizona and is accompanied by a colleague. It was his job to fetch a visiting poet from the airport, but he failed to spot her and now he needs a beer or two to soothe himself while he wonders how the heck one can lose a poet.
This segment of the evening was very uneven, and although there were hints of a few good comic moments, they weren't really effective. It didn't help that one of the characters, Sadie (Renata Rauschen), was supposed to be lingering in the bathroom offstage and had to deliver her rather extensive discourse from behind the barrier of a set piece, consequently making her lines often unintelligible. Volume, diction and a poor choice by director Arnold for how to handle this challenge rendered this aspect of the scene very frustrating.
The third play, U.R.O.K., was the longest, and its characters were the most developed. And it, too, showed the promise of a comic sensibility.
The scene is a holiday homecoming meal for a very strange trio of siblings. Holidays and family, especially when some members are practitioners of self-help, metaphysical mumbo jumbo, is a situation ripe for comedy. And although this scene, too, was rather awkwardly played out, there was enough energy and life from the actors that the play inspired some chuckles.
This is a summer experiment from Beowulf Alley, and it is to be commended for giving Ambrosek an opportunity to see how his work might play when given legs. It is disappointing, however, to see his work given less than a good, strong representation.