Friday, January 20, 2017

"How to Use a Knife": The workaday world gets its head messed with by the real world

A play that carries a simple instruction in its title has to hint at something much more, or there wouldn't be anything dramatic about it. How-to advice just sits there waiting to be applied to a particular end. Will Snider's "How to Use a Knife" doesn't follow the lesson plan.

George withstands the scrutiny of Kim (Chelsea Anderson) and Michael (Rob Johansen)
Phoenix Theatre's National New Play Network show implies an "open sesame" to a skill set with a world of possibilities. The play begins as a coruscating workplace comedy and ends up as devastation, with a tiny hint of hope. The setting is the kitchen of a restaurant in Lower Manhattan, well arranged and equipped in gleaming stainless steel in James Gross' set design, staffed by a rowdy night crew just coming under the supervision of a new chef.

Both tool and weapon from the dawn of human society, the knife here represents a deep secret in the life of Steve, the dishwasher. The one low-key member of the kitchen night crew keeps such a low profile that the restaurant owner, Michael, is unaware of his national origin or anything else about him, and his co-workers have scarcely any more insight. The Hispanics on the crew nickname him "the man of blood," a sobriquet of prophetic force.

Steve (Ansley Valentine) warns George (Ryan Artzberger) of the mental "click" he needs to control.,
The atmosphere reflects the stress of restaurant work, modulated effectively under Bryan Fonseca's direction. Its typical pace and the variety of moving parts with little margin of error mean its hierarchical organization is typically unsettled, with chaos always on the horizon. In Rob Johansen's hilariously febrile portrayal, Michael is a former line cook who thumbed his nose at the Peter Principle by rising above his level of incompetence, thanks to schmoozing with money men at the bar. As owner, he covers up for undeserved success with nonstop ignorant bluster and a coarse way of skating over the surface of everything, topped by a little self-congratulation on having given a second chance to George, who was once his boss.

Line cooks Miguel and Carlos operate as a team keeping Jack, the runner, on edge.
No one with significant work experience can ever doubt how much personality influences success and even survival in the job market. At the low end of the totem pole, you get people who may be stuck long-term in wearying if essential jobs rubbing shoulders with those who are determined to rise. Carlos (Carlos Medina Maldonado) and Miguel (Wheeler Castaneda) are a couple of Guatemalans, one of them hiding illegal status, who form a jovial yet feisty team as line cooks.

 Jack (Tommy Lewey) is a runner/busboy ambitious to be a writer, with a short fuse he tries to snuff in order to give substance to his vague ambitions. And Steve's reason for being where he is and keeping a low profile, when finally exposed by a persistent official, occasions the upheaval that holds sway over the second act. We are invited to look deep into someone with a monstrous past and a well-structured strategy for exercising self-control. That's sustained with a special kind of melodious evenness in Ansley Valentine's performance. Chelsea Anderson sounded the right steely note of nemesis as the agent in pursuit of a Rwandan war criminal.

The performances were all vivid and idiomatic, true to the ratcheted-up tempo of New York life — something that always flummoxes my Midwestern temperament whenever I visit, though I am Manhattan-born. (Many of the interludes in Brian G. Hartz's sound design, are drum-solo excerpts, sounding for all the world like the tightly-wound Buddy Rich.) The playwright's style picks up the rhythm of repetition and routine in restaurant work, the repeated orders and regular flare-ups,  and extends that into most of the dialogue. Characters ask each other if they mean what they just said. There's lots of repetition and paraphrase. Questions often are meant to be taken as challenges. Constant self-assertion is required in this world, even if you aren't quite sure just what you are asserting. The action moves forward sometimes in back-and-forth sparring that seems static or just funny; then you suddenly realize these are people in a different place with each other than they had been just moments before. I was reminded of early Harold Pinter: "Tea Party" or "The Homecoming."

Ryan Artzberger's performance as George, tentatively trying to find his way back from multiple addictions that have destroyed his family, was masterly from first to last on opening night. In personal retrospect, this actor thrives in roles with a mixture of good and bad at their core. Neither Atticus Finch (Indiana Repertory Theatre) nor Iago (Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre) brought out the best in him.

George does; the character has inner resources that it takes his friendship with Steve to nurture. But there are also loads of vulnerability, which no local actor can convey better vocally than Artzberger. That quaver, that catch in the throat — no one has a resource like that so naturally and aptly available. For George, a complete breakdown must happen first, after Steve's past difficulties come to light and he is forced to leave the restaurant ahead of the law.

Some rages onstage rivet your attention for their all-out energy; George's also breaks your heart, because Artzberger connects it so well to the weaknesses George has exhibited and to how he processes Steve's mysterious lesson on how to find inner peace. That lesson may eventually sustain him more than his ominously superfluous instruction to Steve in how to use a knife.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Common and uncommon coin: Hundred-dollar gold piece moves American imagery forward, past (or not) a good poem with an awful title

Striking news came from the U.S. Mint over a news-chocked holiday weekend: The first image of an African-American woman will appear on an American coin —a one-hundred-dollar gold commemorative in honor of the Mint's 225th anniversary.

It's a beautiful image, to be prized as much for its rarity as regretted, probably, for the unlikelihood that many Americans will ever see or feel one. And as the acting director of the Mint told NPR this morning (January 17) spending it would be foolish, because the gold used to make it is worth more than the face value of the coin.

Hmmmm: Just as the value of African-Americans' contributions to American life exceeds what white America is willing to credit them with, I suppose. Much is owed, more than is ever likely to be repaid. But to reconceive Lady Liberty as a black woman at least symbolizes movement in that direction.

It brings to mind the previous image of Lady Liberty on the dime — the kind of dime I would still find in my pocket as a kid, 
An early Liberty dime bearing the image of Elsie Stevens
ready to buy a candy bar, until the Roosevelt dimes took over. Early in the 20th century, Elsie Stevens posed for sculptor Adolph Weinman, a neighbor of her and her husband on West 25th Street in New York. His profile of her, in a winged cap, was chosen for the Liberty dime and half-dollar that the Mint put into production in 1916. She was married to the man who wrote these lines:

If ever the search for a tranquil belief should end,
The future might stop emerging out of the past,
Out of what is full of us; yet the search
And the future emerging out of us seem to be one.

Excellent lines, the fifth section of an excellent poem in 50 brief sections  by Wallace Stevens. The poem has an unfortunate title: "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery." That alone probably keeps it from being studied in literature classes, though it's a rich example of Stevens' imagination, with echoes throughout his work. The irony of the casual racism behind the title forces itself on my attention as I think about the new Liberty head on the hundred-dollar gold coin.

Stevens' poem was described by the friend to whom he dedicated it as "an olio" — an old-fashioned word indicating a hodgepodge, a miscellany of things gathered. The Roman numerals with which Stevens headed each section warn the reader not to expect continuity between one section and the next. Fair enough, but what about that title? The poet's friend, Judge Arthur Powell, recalled a walk he took with the poet in Key West when they stopped to look through a fence.

"I explained that I thought it enclosed a graveyard," Powell wrote years later, "as some of the rubbish looked 'like decorations in a nigger cemetery.' He was interested when I explained the custom of negroes [sic] to decorate graves with broken pieces of glass, old pots, broken pieces of furniture, dolls heads, and what not."

Poets turn all sorts of things to account, and the title had an aptness in Stevens' mind that overruled any racial sensitivity he may have possessed. There are not indications he had much. Like many normally well-disposed white Americans of his era, he had attitudes somewhat disdainful or dismissive of minorities: Stevens rejected patronizing a certain restaurant with a friend on the grounds that "too many Jews" dined there.

Well-bred Americans tended to express such attitudes only among friends. Similarly, Stevens didn't divulge to many that his wife's portrait was common coin in American pockets. You didn't brag, and you weren't thoughtlessly cruel to people you thought less of. Stevens didn't like poor people, either, but he is reported to have been generous with the occasional handout.

If the judge's observation of black Americans' grave-decorating habits was accurate, his use of the n-word to describe the look of their cemeteries was just another way of stipulating where "the Other" lived and breathed in the country they shared. There were boundaries so strict and self-evident for a Southern judge in the 1920s, and not fully faded today.

The late playwright August Wilson ("Fences") once described the distinctive traits of black culture that justified — nay, required — his artistic specialization in black life. Racial discrimination, for all its sorrows, had resulted in the development of separate cultural spheres in the United States. He felt that his sphere was worth observing, sustaining and celebrating on the stage ("We decorate our homes differently," for instance). Multifaceted cultural identity, he'd say, is certain to persist, whatever barriers to black advancement might eventually fall.

Wilson would have snorted scorn at the platitudes about a "post-racial" America that arose with Barack Obama's election. That toxic word in the Stevens title serves to confirm the painfulest part of what's likely to endure in American life. The most stunning line in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," the play now in production at Indiana Repertory Theatre, probes the wound.  The brilliant black doctor's father upbraids him for his choice of a white wife by warning him against the day "when she wakes up and calls you nigger." That got a gasp from the audience the night I attended. It gave voice to a fundamental fear that America may never come to terms with the worst aspects of its racial legacy.

A white man moving into old age, as I am, can't pretend to suggest a way out of the problems posed by the accidental encounter of a poem with an offensive title and a shiny coin proclaiming that an idealized black woman can stand for the United States just as well as an idealized white woman. Yet liberty itself doesn't mean much without that recognition.

I'll just ask you to note that the obverse of the new coin is an American eagle taking wing — not the familiar, literally spread-eagled symbol with arrows in one talon, an olive branch in the other. The eagle is off to someplace new, someplace perhaps envisioned steadily by the black Lady Liberty on the coin's other side.

To adapt Stevens' language in section V, even a bright future must emerge out of the past, "out of what is full of us," our good and evil alike. That's what we can't help carrying in "the search for a tranquil belief." And why would we want to avoid that burden?  After all, "the search / And the future emerging out of us seem to be one."

[This essay is indebted for anecdotes about Wallace Stevens to Peter Brazeau's oral biography, "Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered."]

Monday, January 16, 2017

Poetry at the Trump Inauguration: A Scattershot Anthology

I've looked in vain for the name of any American poet invited to read or recite at Friday's inauguration of the country's 45th
For better or verse: Robert Frost struggled with a glaring sun to read a new poem at John F. Kennedy's Inauguration, but that's nothing compared to the struggle of even finding a living poet in 2017 willing to add luster to Trump's ceremony on FRiday.
president. Maybe invitations have been sent out, only to be rejected without the kind of attention that musicians and actors who have declined are now receiving.

What sort of poetry would suit the start of Donald Trump's term?  In offering the final anthology of excerpts, I'm taking into account the new president's fabled short attention span. These snippets have a certain order to them, though Mr. Trump is unlikely to be aware of it. He also may not discern that the reasons for inclusion are both clear and obscure, and subject to a range of interpretation — just like much of what he's said in his favorite short form, the Tweet.

The selections are all by American poets, with one exception. The reason for its inclusion should require no explanation.

Fair warning that any such anthology must be an obvious mismatch with the new president was provided with foresight decades ago by Paul Laurence Dunbar, in two quatrains titled "The Poet." Here's the second of them: "He sang of love when earth was young, / And Love, itself, was in his lays. / But ah, the world, it turned to praise / A jingle in a broken tongue."

So, get Kellyanne Conway or Eric Trump up to that microphone on the Capitol steps, and let them intone the following:

One's-self must never give way — that is the final substance — that out of all is sure,
Out of politics, triumphs, battles, life what at last finally remains?
When shows break up what but One's-Self is sure?
            — Walt Whitman, "Quicksand of Years"

Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
This is what I wanted.

             —  James Wright, "Today I Was So Happy, So I Made  This Poem"

May I in my brief bolt across the scene
Not be misunderstood in what I mean.

             —  Robert Frost, "The Fear of Man"

What am I after all but a child, pleas'd with the sound of my own name? repeating it over and over;
I stand apart to hear — it never tires me.

               — Whitman, "What Am I After All"

We ride amid a tempest of dispraise.

                 — Dunbar, "Douglass"

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down....
He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbors'

                 —  Frost, "Mending Wall"

nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

                  — e.e. cummings, "somewhere I have never traveled"

Oh, lovely Pussy, oh, Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
      You are,
      You are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!

                  — Edward Lear, "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat"

A man feared that he might find an assassin;
Another that he might find a victim.
One was more wise than the other.

                   — Stephen Crane, LVI, "The Black Riders and Other Lines"

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Finding their hearts in San Francisco: IRT's 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' rests shakily over the deepest American fault line

Dr. Prentice tries to charm the Draytons' skeptical housekeeper-cook.
As soon as you take in the magnificence of Robert M. Koharchik's set on Indiana Repertory Theatre's OneAmerica Mainstage, you are tempted to believe nothing bad could ever happen there. It's lofty, well-appointed, light-addled, and as intricate and assertively angular as Piranesi's architectural engravings, yet without their hints of gloom. It's the home of Matt and Chris Drayton, a newspaper publisher and an art-gallery owner, representing fashionable success, with a priceless Bay view.

But the show is "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," whose central issue everyone has known for decades because of the movie:  the effect of an impending interracial marriage on two families, one black, one white. So you know better than to be fooled by the setting, especially since the year is 1967, and a half-century on, Americans suspect that the problems the show raises are nowhere near real-world resolution.

They are almost left unresolved in Todd Kreidler's adaptation of William Rose's screenplay.  The second act is loaded with emotionally seismic activity, heart-rending reaches and rebuffs across the gulf separating the principals. Until everyone sits down to dinner as the stage lights dim, the audience is encouraged to entertain doubts things will turn out well. These are related to the doubts Americans are justified in having about ever breaking bread all together at the same table, as Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned in 1963.

The revelations in the first act, while nerve-racking, have the feel of a comedy of manners. The audience is even permitted to feel the fun in the awkwardness of the situation. Nubile daughter Joanna has returned home from Hawaii, where her hospital
John and Joanna have a rare moment alone.
work acquainted her with Dr. John Prentice, a renowned medical researcher. They have fallen in love after 10 days of intense romance, and now their mainland families must be wrenched into a mood of appropriate celebration, before the couple jets off to Switzerland (where his career calls) to tie the knot.

James Baldwin wrote long ago that in American life status became a kind of substitute for identity. Yet he knew in the 1950s  as well as anyone knows today that identity has a way of coming around and biting status in the butt. That's what it does in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," with the white-liberal decency and privilege of Matt Drayton tested to the nth degree. His opposite number, John Prentice Sr., has had his status caught up in his son's upward mobility. What he has had to overcome as a postal worker exposes the unhealed wounds of his identity in a searing second-act confrontation with his son, whose status as an eminent physician is threatened by the identity he shares with his parents.

The older men's wives are also affected by the same forces, but they can exercise durable female stratagems for adjusting to life's disturbances. Mary Prentice, the doctor's mother, has an exasperated line to the effect that men become dumber as they get older and insensitive to the passions and energy that rule young people. That may be so; it's not for me to say. The women assuredly tip the balance here, especially in the adorable conversion of the housekeeper Tillie to the couple's cause.

Nonetheless, the play skirts the trap of becoming a set of arguments and perspectives on race in the second act. Director Skip Greer should be credited for having his cast fully receptive to the dramatic tension and its multiple ways of release. The near-speechless awkwardness of the second act's opening scene, with both households assembled in one place, was brilliant.

The play's central problems need to be propelled away from being an exposition of different attitudes. In reviewing George Bernard Shaw's work more than a century ago, the London critic Max Beerbohm noted that Shaw often constructs a glittering array of arguments for  his characters to embody, nudging his plays more toward Platonic dialogues than real theater.

Dr. Prentice bonds with his future father-in-law talking about the Louis-Schmeling fight.
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" fortunately has real people at its core, and this production never falters in letting them flower beyond their attitudes. At the center are Annie Munch as  bright-eyed Joanna, her idealism and willfulness ratcheted up believably, and Chik√© Johnson as Dr. Prentice, carrying manfully but vulnerably the burden of being a widower in addition to his others.

Craig Spidle played Matt Drayton as a scrupulous, anxious father stressed about a liberalism most at home in his editorials, less so in his personal life. As Chris, Brigitt Marcusfeld was a simpatico partner, significantly more flexible as a parent but sturdier about applying moral standards consistently.

Cleavant Derricks was explosive and poignant in the role of John Prentice Sr., and Nora Cole as Mary Prentice projected Southern gentility capable of being appropriately aroused. Lynda Gravatt made clear the reasons behind Tillie's initial hostility, comical but wounding in her skepticism, as well as when she was believably won over.

Constance Macy gave a snobbish breeziness to bigotry in a brief appearance as Chris' officious gallery employee, HiIlary St. George. Mark Goetzinger had a supporting role as someone at the other end of the spectrum, brimming with tolerance and sententious cheeriness as Monsignor Ryan. The other characters are all caught up in the conflict, and the uniform excellence of the cast showed how decent and redeemable each one is.

"It is not my impression that people wish to become worse," Baldwin wrote in the same address cited above. "They really wish to become better but very often do not know how."

Fear is at the root of the conflict that roils "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Baldwin cites the position of the Israelites in Egypt in a way that might apply to this play. They "really wished to get to the Promised Land but were afraid of the rigors of the journey; and, of course, before you embark on a journey, the terrors of whatever may overtake you on that journey live in the imagination and paralyze you."

Once the Draytons and the Prentices sit down to the dinner Tillie has prepared, they are ready to move on.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Men and Mountains: Indianapolis Symphony begins a two-week Music of the Earth Festival with Strauss and Copland

Borrowing a title (above) from Carl Ruggles, a composer unlikely to be played anytime soon by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the first week of the ISO's Music of the Earth Festival takes audiences to the Alps and the Appalachians.

Richard Strauss outside his beloved Bavarian villa.
The men-and-mountains alliteration exerts a magnetic pull, but, at least in the case of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," women are also a strong force in human interaction with geography. In fact, both musically and choreographically, the Bride's Dance in the American composer's ballet music for Martha Graham, seems to me the score's highlight and the focus of its energy.

However much women may be crucial to the settlement of mountainous terrain, its exploration has been culturally conceived as a male prerogative. For better or worse, the idea of male self-testing is bound up in mountains, "conquering" them and regarding them as a measure of physical and moral fitness.

In Friday night's initial traversal of the mountain claims staked by Copland and Richard Strauss, music director Krzysztof Urbanski was making a rare foray into Americana and, with Strauss' "Alpine Symphony," a return visit after three years. This time around, he linked his interpretation of the massive score to the spectacle of Tobias Melle's Alpine photography.

The prolific imagery, projected on a large screen behind the orchestra, was fully in keeping with the composer's mission to celebrate the unencumbered human spirit in connection with nature at its most awe-inspiring. Melle's focus ranges over the complete spectrum of nature in the Alps, from dew-spangled flowers and weather-worn dead trees to the grandest mountain vistas. Human habitation is acknowledged, but put in a context of individual adventure and close observation. 

Through montage, panorama, and occasional manipulation of light and shadow (particularly in the thunderstorm section), Melle moves well beyond a photo-album effect to complement Strauss's music. In 2014, projected movement titles helped orient ISO audiences to the work's pictorial riches. This time, the depictions derived from the composer's experience of the mountains were visually represented with just a hint of the encounter's transcendental meaning.

Strauss' inspiration from a poem by Friedrich Nietzsche called "Antichrist" might seem to center the work uncomfortably in an ideological agenda. Instead, his goal was to celebrate the unmediated encounter of clear-eyed humanity and the direct forcefulness and variety of the natural world as could be glimpsed from his beloved villa in Garmisch.

Strauss had less mysticism about him than any other major romantic composer; "Alpine Symphony" has a brief episode titled "Apparition" to salute folk legend. But you won't find any of the emotional and spiritual baggage that Tchaikovsky, in another tone poem bearing uneasily the designation "symphony,"  imported from Lord Byron for his "Manfred" Symphony. That work was wonderfully played and recorded many years ago by the ISO under Raymond Leppard. The triggering poem, also set in the Alps, has a central figure tortured by visions of meaninglessness, inconsolable over a lost love. 

Manfred is thus at the opposite pole from the implicit hero of Strauss's tone poem. Where Byron's figure says "there is no form on earth hideous or beautiful to me," Strauss, enhanced by Melle, begs to differ. Thus, "An Alpine Symphony" is about the only instrumental work I can think of that deserves the accompaniment of images. It begs for the multiplicity of forms and phenomena that symphonic music can only hint at, however vividly. Strauss is closer to Byron's friend Shelley, who looked at the French Alps wonder of Mont Blanc and proclaimed: "The secret strength of things, / Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome / Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!"

Martha Graham and the leaping Revivalist in the ballet "Appalachian Spring"
"An Alpine Symphony" is all about "the secret strength of things," with little interpolation of masculine vainglory or existential despair. That is true of the music and imagery even in the crowning section depicting the mountain summit. The astonishing views Melle presents lent an extra expansiveness and glow to Jennifer Christen's oboe solo. Did she play it even better Friday than she did three years ago? Maybe not; maybe my ears and eyes both were fooling me. I'm willing to conclude it couldn't have been better.

Grandiloquent and carefully measured as it was, the ISO's performance was never overshadowed by the pictures' continuous "wow" effect. Balances were firm and orchestral colors (supplemented by sheep bells, wind machine, and organ) imaginatively deployed throughout. Besides, the musical acuity of the dawn and sunset portions framing the performance clearly eclipsed the photography's allure.

As for "Appalachian Spring," there was similar control applied to the hushed opening and closing measures. It also seems that Urbanski found something congruent with the folk dances of his native Poland in the "Revivalist and his flock" section, with its rhythmic variety and ecstatic accents. Despite brief lack of coordination between trumpet and strings, Friday's was a polished, exuberant account of a beloved American score. 

Strike that "men" stuff — this program is all about people and mountains.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The self in fabric, foam, felt, glue, needle and thread: 'Puppet Man' explores freedom through puppet play

Theatre on the Square's focus on Indiana playwrights takes center stage to start the New Year, with Andy Black's "Puppet Man" on the main stage and Lou Harry's "Clutter" on Stage Two, both opening Jan. 12.

"Puppet Man" nis both coarse and sweet in tracing a fragile prisoner's redemption through the art and craft of puppetry. "Pretty Boy" DuPree is taken into a small class run by the worldly wise, idealistic "Doc" Markos, played with mother-hen solicitude by Miki Mathioudakis. The troupe regularly performs fairy tales with handmade puppets for the children of prison visitors. Contrary to much of what one reads today about the purpose of imprisonment, rehabilitation remains a goal in this institution. Yet daily life there doesn't seem subject to close, enlightened supervision.

Inmates of a correctional institution scrutinize "Pretty Boy" DuPree in TOTS' production.
As for the main character's turn toward puppetry, there is no evident artist in "Pretty Boy" crying to get out. His ulterior motive is to get his hands on contraband materials he can turn over to a predatory inmate called "Word" in order to support his drug habit. "Word" is a savage entrepreneur in the performance of Carey Shea. He embodies the lupine sneakiness of the villain in "Little Red Riding-Hood," the frame tale in puppetry that surrounds the action.

The play thus presents layers of manipulation, including DuPree's sexual exploitation by Pete Cunningham, a prison guard (Bradford Reilly). The humiliation drives him deeper within, where he's already nursing guilt about the fact that his crime led to his innocent girlfriend's conviction. Taylor Cox plays "Pretty Boy" as hapless and struggling, carrying a full load of anxiety that crosses over into auditory hallucinations when the drugs he pries from "Word" fail to calm him. Cox's opening-night performance was affecting and aptly claustrophobic: DuPree's constrained world seems to be closing in upon him. If the characterization hadn't prodded the actor toward near-inaudibility from time to time, it would have been just right.

A strong didactic strain permeates Black's script, though director Ty Stover seems to have been alert to keep the dramatic elements foremost. There's vivid believability in the troupe's other members: the flamboyantly "out" "Fantasia" (Josiah McCruiston), the wary "Sidewinder" (Josh Ramsey), and the guarded yet heroic "Dayton" (Matt Anderson).

The playwright may have meant the metaphorical significance of puppetry to run riot over the show; I can't be sure. The lessons "Pretty Boy" absorbs from "Doc" Markos and Dayton become somewhat preachy, it's true. And there is a lot of tying up of plot ends in the second act, including the guard's unlikely explanation to "Pretty Boy" of the reason for the lockdown alarm.

The puppets used, as directed by Patrick Weigand (who also headed the construction team) are marvelously crafted creatures. They support in every respect the show's reliance on the value of healthy illusions. But manipulation in a good cause can be just as limiting as the other kind.

I think we are meant to feel "Pretty Boy" has achieved a kind of liberation at the end. The question remains: How much does "Pretty Boy" ever command sufficient inner resources to take some control over his situation? We are asked to believe that he brings long-hidden resources of his own to bear, but is he mastering puppetry, or has puppetry mastered him?

I was left with the impression that Andy Black was more intent on displaying his control as creator over his characters. The grand finale of the puppet show that makes up this two-acter's final scene buoys us up. It also suggests that whatever positive messages we internalize are pulling our strings. They could be the unseen hand that makes manifest our actions and thoughts just as much as those private demons we struggle to suppress or defeat. In that sense, as Elvis sang 60 years ago in a song that's part of the show's sound design, everybody is dancing to the jailhouse rock.