Tabloid Tales

ART's 'Bat Boy' and IT's dark 'Vengeful Redhead' are modern-day mythic narratives

Theater has always taken inspiration from public narratives: myths and ballads and urban legends. One contemporary form of mythic public narrative is the tabloid magazine—those larger-than-life stories at the grocery-store checkout line.

In the early 1990s, the Weekly World News ran a story about Bat Boy, a half-human, half-bat creature. And in 1997, Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming (story and book), along with Laurence O'Keefe (music and lyrics), premiered Bat Boy: The Musical, inspired by this mythical child of popular culture.

The show is performed regularly, but it has always been more of a cult hit than a mainstream standard, perhaps because of its campy style and subject matter.

Take the Arizona Repertory Theatre's production, directed by Rob Gretta. It opens with three West Virginia teenagers sneaking into an abandoned coal mine to smoke a little marijuana. The trio (Patrick Spencer, Zachary Karon and Jennifer Hijazi, who all play multiple parts) discover the titular bat creature, played by Michael Schauble. They try to pacify him with Fritos, but he bites them instead.

Bat Boy is brought to the home of the local veterinarian (Ryan Kleinman), where he is uneasily welcomed by the vet's wife, Meredith (Cait Kiley), and teenage daughter, Shelley (Brenna Wagner). Meredith, in a delightful My Fair Lady-style montage, teaches him how to speak and act like a real gentleman.

However, the local community is less accepting of Bat Boy. And then there's the tricky matter of Bat Boy's origins. Where did he come from? Is he man or beast?

In the second act, Bat Boy gets seriously mythical, evoking origin tales such as Oedipus Rex. To further underscore the mythical roots of the story, the god Pan (Cooper Hallstrom) appears, summoning the spirit of lust. Pan is backed by a chorus holding up stuffed animals, who engage in vigorous mock-mating.

If this all sounds weird, it is. ART's productions are usually fairly stolid, and at intermission, you could tell that Bat Boy's shenanigans had ruffled some theatergoers' feathers: I could never bring children to this! What exactly are we watching?

For my part, I already adored Bat Boy, and was hoping that ART would do it justice. It does.

The sound is solid: Musical director Monte Ralstin and conductor Shawn Cullen have put together an excellent five-piece live band. Some members of the ensemble cast have trouble making themselves heard over the music, but the leads (especially Kiley and Wagner) all have excellent voices.

The choreography includes some impressive, "Thriller"-inspired moves during the big number, "Hold Me, Bat Boy," and the costumes are also full of pop-culture nods. (Wagner's Shelley, for instance, spends the first act in a schoolgirl skirt and pink wig, evoking another tabloid mainstay, Britney Spears.)

It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you enjoy dark humor, self-mocking musicals, tabloid magazines, gothic horror, mythical fantasy or deliberate camp, please, run, don't walk, to the dark cave of the UA's Tornabene Theatre, and enjoy Bat Boy.

I don't know if the plot of Robert Hewett's The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead was ripped from the headlines, but the story it tells would make excellent tabloid fodder.

The Invisible Theatre is producing Hewett's 2004 one-woman show, which centers on a crime of passion and its far-reaching consequences. Actor Betsy Kruse Craig plays seven different characters, male and female, each one giving a different perspective on the play's central event.

Rhonda, the redhead, opens the show with an account of her grief and confusion over the demise of her marriage. Enraged—and goaded by her neighbor, Lynette—she goes to the mall to confront the woman she holds responsible; things get violent.

As the play progresses, we have monologues from Rhonda's husband, Graham; the devious friend, Lynette; the partner of Rhonda's victim, Dr. Alex; the victim's 5-year-old child, Matthew; the victim's neighbor, Mrs. Joan ... and, of course, the blonde at the center of the story, Tanya.

In a thick Russian accent, Tanya announces, "Nothing is as it seems," which serves as the play's theme. As we see each perspective, we realize that much of what the characters are telling us is a delusion, a mistake or a flat-out lie.

Craig swiftly changes costumes during brief blackouts between monologues, but directors Susan Claassen and Brent Gibbs keep several wigs (blond, brunette and redhead) visible onstage—a reminder that appearances are deceiving.

Craig is a tremendously likable performer, which helps, because many of the characters are extraordinarily vile—the fact that the violent Rhonda is one of the most sympathetic characters gives you a sense of the play's bleak world. The characters of Graham and Lynette, for instance, are so awful as to be nearly caricatures. There are certainly terrible people in the world, but Graham and Lynette's nonstop delusion and selfishness feel like overkill.

Still, what a one-woman show comes down to is the actor at the heart of it, and Craig is so delightful to watch that she keeps you engaged through all seven transformations.

The fact that we can see her changing wigs further underscores how much an actor's creation of a character depends not on visible props like wigs and makeup and costumes, but rather on imaginative engagement with the audience.

Craig delivers, making us believe in each character she inhabits—and holding together a script that at times strains credulity.

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