San Diego The lights come up. We're in a room under repair: boards tilt against bare walls; faux blue marble fireplace. In the center's a silver tarp and a blindfolded old man slumped on a chair. There's blood on his bandaged right arm and the blindfold. His left arm sticks out, as if broken. If he's alive, he's barely breathing.
He looks like a political prisoner, between interrogations and in no shape for another. But the two nervous guys standing over him don't wear uniforms. Bearded, gruff Mike's in jeans and black, something-about-Chicago T-shirt, Dean's in white shirt and slacks. At first it's hard to put the two men, late-twenties/early-thirties, together with the old man, since they talk about this and that. Dean, for example, says he met his new wife in rehab and loves their honesty, based on the truth-telling the 12-step program demands.
"She know about your former wives?" asks Mike.
The room is part of an apartment complex getting converted to condo. And the man on the chair, it turns out, abused Mike, Dean, and Terry, who shows up later, when they were in the fifth grade. He was an "atom bomb" in their lives. And now they'll make him pay. Or should they?
One Hundred Birds, by local playwright Ira Bateman-Gold -- which may be a pseudonym for Dale Morris, artistic director of 6th@Penn -- recalls William Mastrosimone's Extremities, in which a victim turns the tables on a rapist. It also recalls the movie Pulp Fiction, in which the bad guys -- Tarantino's pet device -- pass the time talking about interesting things. In Birds, Mike, Dean, and Terry talk about llamas having long necks and about supporting impoverished children overseas, black holes (at length, and heavy on the metaphorical links), and a pyramid of 100 birds on Diego Garcia atoll (more metaphor). They also discuss their marriages -- eight, among the three of them, and seven divorces -- and drench the stage in misogyny.
The set pieces go on too long and not only diffuse tension, they detract from the play's strength. Bateman-Gold knows how to write dialogue for actors -- "what to leave in," as Bob Seger once sang, "and what to leave out" -- loading fragments of speech with nonverbal information. You can feel the men's torment in what they can't express: the struggle between what remains of their humanity versus wanting revenge. But just about every time the one-act begins to ratchet up the emotions, however, it swings into a lecture culled from the Discovery Channel or NPR.
The 6th@Penn production, part of that theater's Human Rights Festival 2007, rivets when the writing does. Greg Wittman heads the cast as Mike, the least articulate and most torn between two evils. Robert Borzych gets much of Dean's confusion, including the sense that, since the fifth grade, he and the others have remained arrested, incomplete. Thomas Hall has the most difficult task. In the second half of Birds, Terry has several lengthy monologues. Hall has the requisite intensity but often repeats vocal patterns and keeps returning to the same pep talk, re-urging Dean and Mike to finish the job -- as if revenge alone can make them whole.
When Moses and the Israelites sought the land of milk and honey, not one but two arks led the way: the Ark of the Covenant, with the Ten Commandments, and the "Ark of Bones." The latter was a sarcophagus carrying the remains of Joseph, the great Old Testament figure of mercy. The popular story of Jacob's favorite son and his "coat of many colors" has been told many times (including Thomas Mann's four-volume novel, Joseph and His Brothers). One of the most appealing versions is one of the most simple: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's pop musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
It was Webber and Rice's first collaboration, composed without the budgetary largess that has overloaded their musicals with gaudy effects ever since. The score, so eclectic it feels like a Whitman's sampler of Webber's versatility, ranges from calypso to rock to country and western (the hilarious "One More Angel in Heaven") to Elvis and beyond. Like The Fantasticks, the minimalist show uses humble, "found" props and costumes and narrates Joseph's journey to Egypt through music and Rice's inventive lyrics alone.
Lamb's Players Theatre, which has staged Joseph before, has a flair for the musical's irrepressible spirit. Its current production, with Deborah Gilmour Smyth belting out the narration and smooth-voiced, likable Spencer Moses in the lead, releases that spirit once again. Colleen Kollar's choreography's as versatile as Webber's score (everything from the Pony and the Swim to tap-shoe hoofin'). The nine-member cast gives and gives.
It's a fun show. But for those who remember Lamb's earlier efforts, this is a Joseph with a budget. Instead of a find-what-you-can, Vegas chintz look, Mike Buckley's set -- tinsel palm trees and metallic pyramid in the rear -- is upscale. As are Michelle Hunt's quality costumes. But they take so much time to change that onstage actors must stretch the interludes to accommodate them, which leads to stop-and-go pacing. The show remains a crowd-pleaser, but the sense of humble, scavenger-hunt improvisation is gone. It's as if the show got moved from Glitter Gulch to a tonier part of the strip.
One Hundred Birds, by Ira Bateman-Gold
6th@Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Directed by Dale Morris; cast: Greg Wittman, Robert Borzych, Thomas Hall, Bud Coleman; scenic design, Kevin and Brenda McFarlane; lighting, Mitchell Simkovsky
Playing through June 18; for days and times call 619-688-9210.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice
Lamb's Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Directed by Robert Smyth; cast: Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Spencer Moses, Keith Jefferson, Steve Limones, Jon Lorenz, Lance Smith, Season Duffy, Colleen Kollar, Joy Yandell; scenic design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Michelle Hunt; lighting, Nathan Peirson; sound, Patrick Duffy; musical director, G. Scott Lacy
Playing through July 8; Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-437-0600.