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January 24, 2003

U of C playwright eschews phallic symbol

There are some things that just should not be done: Art Garfunkel covering Stevie Wonder's "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)," Avril Lavigne mispronouncing David Bowie's last name, the movie Junior - all horrible mistakes. An addition to this list is writing the use of guns into a stage play. There are undoubtedly going to be a few times where a gun will actually be a welcome addition to an already engaging plot, but these times are the exception, not the rule.

Let me explain. This past Saturday, January 18, I went to the O'Rourke Center at Truman College, right off of the Wilson Red Line stop. I went to review a one-act play written by Ruth Martin, a second year student at the U of C. The Pegasus Players are performing her play Triptych as a part of their Young Playwrights Festival.

The festival, as described by the press release, is "a year-long cycle of workshops, performances, and special programs, all centered on teaching play writing to Chicago's young people and concluding with a citywide play writing competition." There are four winning playwrights. The reward for first place, in addition to a check for $250, is the performance of each playwright's script by the professional actors in Pegasus Players.

I arrived just in time to catch the beginning of the first one-act, You Can't Handle the Truth by Natasha Dyer. It is the story of a domestic dispute between a woman and her boyfriend as seen through the eyes of their neighbors. There seems to be some kind of struggle, and when the police arrive, the boyfriend takes off. A reporter arrives on the scene and he begins to ask the neighbors their versions of the story. Each person has a different tale that reflects back on his or her own character, and none of them are compatible. When, at the end, it turns out that the boyfriend was just trying to propose to his girlfriend as a surprise after a minor conflict, the lesson is clear, if predictable--there are many sides to a story, and, often, none of them reveals the truth. Considering that the playwright was in high school when she wrote it, it could be a lot worse. So far, the gun count was at one, and only as an accessory on the police officer's belt.

The next play, Stephen Ptacek's Waves, was simultaneously more complex and more confusing. It's the story of hero-worship gone awry. Mark, a lifeguard, saves a nutcase named Stuart and then becomes the object of Stuart's mentally deranged fantasies. The situation escalates, and then, "Holy shit! Mark just pulled a gun." I am not kidding; this came from nowhere. The whole time after that I was on the edge of my seat waiting for a gun to fire that never does, and that is just tricky. The play ends with a statement about individual choice, which I actually happened to like, but on the whole, it was incoherent and relied too much on its overextended metaphor of digging a hole.

After that shocker came Insert Title Here, Lisa Marrow's play about a girl stuck on the battleground of school, homework, obligations and the elaborate fantasies that she creates for herself. The cool thing about this play was the shift between reality and fantasy highlighted by changes in lighting and costumes. My problems with it are twofold. First, there is one fantasy scene in which the protagonist, Agnes, is living in France with a group of Beat poet types. In this scene, Agnes' fantasy boyfriend comes up with a plan to write the next great novel. He says it will be brilliant and subtle, dealing with an internal struggle and having a sad ending, which he says makes it artistic. What upset me even more than the boyfriend saying "Jack Kerouac was a pussy" was the fact that the last scene of his novel is the same as the last scene of the play. First they knocked my man Jack, and then the play had to get self-aggrandizing. My second qualm with this play goes back to guns. The climactic scene is another fantasy in which all of the other characters, about seven or eight total, are pointing guns at Agnes, who kneels at the front of the stage. Metaphorical, yes, but still cheap.

Triptych closed out the evening. It is simpler and has more depth than any of the others. The premise is simply three scenes dealing with different aspects of motherhood. In the first, a woman gets mad at her husband when she thinks he is pressuring her into having kids. She doesn't want them and doesn't see anything wrong with that. He consoles her by saying that she is the only thing that matters to him. The second scene is with a mother and her grown daughter in a restaurant. The mother is obviously anal-retentive to the max, but it turns out that the girl herself is pregnant via in vitro fertilization (she is a lesbian--an unnecessary point) and has started to notice some of her mother's behaviors in herself. This was the most poorly acted scene; there was a lot of humor in the script that just didn't come off in the performance. But it was all made up for in the final scene. In it, a girl is interviewing her mother for a documentary she is filming on motherhood and the loss of identity that the role implies. When she is told this and her daughter leaves, the mother goes into a final monologue that was nothing short of a revelation for me. The ideas of gratitude and the way that dreams can change were articulated excellently. I was moved, but more importantly, there were no guns involved.

The Pegasus Players' 17th annual Young Playwrights Festival will be playing on Friday and Saturday, January 24 and 25, at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, January 26, at 3 p.m. All performances are at the O'Rourke Center on the campus of Truman College. For more information, call (773) 878-9761.