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Theater Review:

Shattered Globe Theatre’s "COYOTE ON A FENCE" at The Storefront Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

When Shattered Globe Theatre opened "Coyote on a Fence," Bruce Graham’s balanced and heartfelt capital punishment-themed drama earlier this year at Victory Gardens Theater, I thought every element of play and production worked perfectly in a space that forced viewers to get up close and personal with a frustratingly complex issue. But the dedicated artists of Shattered Globe have managed to make an already seamless staging more flawless and compelling with its remount of "Coyote on a Fence" at The Storefront Theater.

Visionary scenic-lighting designer Kevin Hagen takes full creative advantage of the downtown theater’s raw surroundings – from exposed brick walls to cat walks framed in coiled steel pipes. Hagen’s thick layers of bars and blinding, interrogation-room lighting – accented by the chronic inhuman din of sound designers Bob Rokos and Dave Bell’s ambient noise – turn audiences into spectators at a life-obliterating zoo (one of the characters even does animal impressions) while enclosing them inside a cage of crushing moral dilemmas.

Inspired by a true story, "Coyote on a Fence" centers on two Death Row inmates. Convicted murderer John Brennan, who writes a prison newsletter called "The Death Row Advocate," is in denial about his role in the beating death of a drug dealer. A man with a proud, self-centered streak, he is reluctant to befriend his new cell partner: Bobby Reyburn, a mildly retarded white supremacist who believes his setting fire to an African-American church and killing close to 40 people was ordained by God. Both men represent many facets of the human psyche and demonstrate the inherent contradictions of state-sanctioned killing.

Bobby is an especially complex case, considering that he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, experienced unspeakable physical-sexual abuse as a child and was shown love only by his uncle – a sworn member of the Aryan Brotherhood who taught him how to hate. He revels in his guilt and believes his death will unite him with his God. Bobby also thinks God sounds like Raymond Burr.

John defies the Death Row stereotype by appearing to be well-read and in command of his arguments. But, unlike Bobby who takes personal responsibility for his actions, John lets his intellectual superiority and eternal quest for self-justification stand in the way of accepting the fact that he took another human life.

The playwright further balances his multidimensional arguments with jaded corrections officer Shawna DuChamps, an African-American single mom who does not feel guilty about the profession she has chosen. In the ultimate irony, she finds herself more protected in a facility housing violent criminals than on the streets of her poverty-stricken neighborhood. Another character, "New York Times" reporter Sam Fried, is eager to explore John’s motivations behind "The Death Row Advocate," only to find his own conscience tested and inconsistent views on capital punishment painfully revealed.

Director Dado once again proves her skill at drawing out intense but textured performances from her exceptionally intuitive ensemble. She is adept at injecting multitiered emotions into and exploring with honesty and sensitivity the most fervent masculine plays.

Lead actors Joe Forbrich as John and Steve Key as Bobby are in top form as they take their characters several steps beyond their previous interpretations in terms of motivations and dimensions. They play off each other in a musical sense, with Forbrich representing the more rigid base line around which Key riffs and improvises. Neither the playwright nor the director manipulates our emotions. Many viewpoints unfold and, most importantly, a face is put on a sticky and nearly unsolvable issue.

As he limps around and squints and flashes a goofy gap-toothed grin, Key’s Bobby can be both endearing and repulsive. One second he’s pondering why anyone would want to swing a dead cat; the next moment, he’s delivering a neo-Nazi rant. We also learn little revealing details about his traumatic childhood in non self-pitying terms and soon realize that only in death does Bobby think he will be validated and celebrated. John, on the other hand, is too wrapped up in syntaxes and spelling to admit his own failures.

Nadirah Bost is ideally cast as the disenchanted and disenfranchised corrections officer, lending a realness and earthiness to her character; and Brian Pudil ably conveys the reporter’s confounded and condescending disposition.

The production’s move to The Storefront Theater creates a palpable prison experience, complete with an endless, maddening beehive hum of restless souls and a mind-numbing, maze-like environment where everyone is under constant surveillance. I rank "Coyote on a Fence" – and its perceptive insights into the topic of death -- as one of the most charged and fulfilling theater experiences of my life.•

Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of "Coyote on a Fence" runs through October 28 at The Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph. Tickets: $15. Call 312-742-TIXS or log onto www.storefronttheater.org. Several performances feature equally compelling post-show discussions.

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