Bad Epitaph Theater Company, founded by Cleveland's own David Hansen (who recently garnered his fifteen seconds of fame by beating Drew Carey to a pair of Browns tickets on national television), is carving a merry niche by taking works that populate freshman literature courses and transforming them into blazing jazz riffs on the originals.
First came the troupe's gangster rendition of Hamlet, a generous metamorphosis of the melancholy Dane into a twitching gunsel, an existential mix of nutty film-noir reinterpretations highlighted by Thomas Cullinan's lisping Richard Widmark-like Hamlet.
Sin, by Wendy MacLeod, is an equally clever sleight of hand, updating and gentrifying the old morality play Everyman, reimagining it as it might have been rewritten by the staff writers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Here that symbol of eternal humanity is a less adorable Mary Richards, Avery Bly (Sarah Morton): an intense thirtysomething in sensible cardigans and Anne Klein business suits simultaneously playing Icarus and traffic reporter in a helicopter. As in the original play, we have the universal journey through life's temptations. Instead of the long-ago pastoral landscapes, we are taken through 1989 San Francisco, where vice rages in coffee bars, radio stations, and AIDS wards.
As they said in Gypsy, "You Gotta Have a Gimmick," and this play comes up with a lulu. The Seven Deadly Sins are rendered in modern acrylic cartoon-like archetypes: Lust as a sleazy barfly on the make for our Everywoman heroine; Sloth as her charming, weak, alcoholic, soon-to-be-ex-husband; Greed as the yuppie blind date from hell; Gluttony as the self-feeding roommate, demanding bigger meals and constant attention; Envy as her co-anchor, obsessing over the boss's unfair advantages; Wrath as the insecure, erupting station manager; and Pride as an AIDS-stricken brother lapping up affirmation concerning past glories.
The production is appropriately squeezed into a miniature art gallery, and each scene is enacted like an intimate diorama in an exhibit of '80s human folly. MacLeod is a quick sketch artist of the abyss. She understands the abridged attention span of today's audiences. She uses the bon mots of A-list sitcoms and the heated theatrics of network melodramas to portray nonsecular damnation: yuppies frozen in greed; pick-up artists enslaved by their libidos; and a heroine entrapped in a helicopter, running away from humanity, observing the traffic of tortured human souls from her flying machine. The first act culminates in an earthquake, and the second act sends our reporter back to earth on a surprising path from Götterdämmerung to the roaring flames of a shattered San Francisco hellscape. Yet, for all the play's quick-witted cleverness, it would be little better than a mechanical contrivance if it weren't for the molten passion generated by an intense ménage à trois among cast, director, and script.
Director Roger Truesdell, a recent refugee from Chicago, has been waiting a half-decade to bring this play to life. He doesn't waste a second. His work burns as steadily as a flame under a theatrical chafing dish, causing his gifted cast to sputter and sizzle and reach new Fahrenheits in their careers.
One could get a migraine debating whether Sarah Morton has more to offer as an actress or as a playwright. She gives a performance of pure oxygen, something you'd like to take home bottled as a snappy pick-me-up after a hard day at the office.
With her chiseled thoroughbred features and ever-present grimace, she's a WASPy female counterpoint to Woody Allen. Like Allen, she turns her insecurities and recalcitrant intelligence into grace notes. Equaling her in charismatic intensity, in a couple of bittersweet love scenes, is David Hansen. Before this play, he had always suggested a whimsical fuzzy Pooh Bear, but here he expands his repertoire to include the emotional range and insouciant charm of the brand of romantic leading man who gets the girl before a movie's closing credits.
With slicked-back hair and sharp defenses, Thomas Cullinan, last year's Hamlet, as a blind date with a soul chillier than a frozen dinner, makes anal retentiveness an en-thralling new spectator sport.
Like Alice after nibbling that little cake labeled "Eat Me," every player on Bad Epitaph's miniature stage grows before our eyes. Sly magic-makers have transformed this old morality play into a rollicking amusement park funhouse.
Keith A. Joseph can be reached at [email protected].