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Theater Reviews:

"ACTS OF MERCY," Flush Puppy Productions at Angel Island Theatre

"BOXING 2000," New York City Players at Athenaeum Theatre


Two Latino-themed plays running in Chicago represent an entirely new approach to writing for the stage: Michael John Garces’ unconventionally structured drama, "Acts of Mercy," receiving its world premiere by Flush Puppy Productions at Angel Island Theatre; and "Boxing 2000," Richard Maxwell’s stripped-down performance piece featuring his New York City Players in a limited engagement presented by Performing Arts Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at the Athenaeum Theatre.

Both writers aim for hyper-realistic dialogue within the inescapably artificial confines of the theatrical form. And, in their minimalist explorations of communication breakdown -- particularly among generations of immigrants – they attempt the Herculean task of conveying the failure of words within an artistic medium rooted in meticulously crafted dialogue.

The results of their linguistic experimentation can be both refreshing to audiences eager for artists to push theater into more challenging and abstract territory and unsettling to theatergoers used to a codified style of dramatic presentation in which ordinary conversations are polished into dialogue meant to be delivered with a heightened sense of emotional awareness.

I fall somewhere between these two realms – anxious for bold boundary-breaking material yet an admirer of the well-made play fostering eternal truths. Of the two works, Garces’ "Acts of Mercy" more lucidly achieves a transcendent sense of futility within its unfinished and repetitive dialogue. Maxwell’s "Boxing 2000," delivered in flat cadences with the actors employing little or no movement while speaking, may pare down characters to their primal essence. But, ultimately, the experience feels false and empty, with the droning speech canceling out any meaningful emotions (either real or contrived).

Like Garces’ writing, Maxwell’s eagerness to unpeel the trappings of theater to reveal its human roots involves something of an acquired taste. Or it may leave a perpetual bad taste in one’s mouth. But Garces is more successful because of his ability to stay true to impeccable scene structure while shaping characters nearly indistinguishable from people off the street. So Garces remains committed to the rudiments of drama and the actors’ skills, yet he presents us with believable individuals caught in the throes of seeking meaning in life. Finding answers may not be possible for these people; but their awkward self-examination represents a pivotal step toward opening up at least a pin hole of communication.

"Acts of Mercy" is divided into two acts, each consisting of seven snapshot scenes over the course of one evening in the life of a Latino family. It is visually divided into a "trinity" of scenes paralleling in secular terms formal Roman Catholic prayers and spiritual responsibilities. Garces takes the Biblical notion of "word mad flesh" and turns it inside out in an effort to tap into the deepest and least understood recesses of psycho-physio-sexual drives (or, in some of the characters’ cases, lack of those drives).

At the head of Garces’ temporal trinity lay Ernesto, the dying patriarch of a Cuban refugee family in America. He is tended to by his loyal but unfulfilled son Eladio (from his much- abused second wife), but cries out for his estranged son Jaime (the embittered offspring of Ernesto’s much-revered first wife). Both sons’ frail attempts at reaching closure with an impenetrable and misguidedly proud father form the crux of this drama. One of the most heartwrenching scenes is reminiscent of the stories of the Prodigal Son and Jacob and Esau. When Ernesto mistakes Eladio for Jaime, the father makes a devastating admission regarding a more metaphoric birthright of the soul.

The playwright carries viewers through an odd and uncomfortable dreamscape of an evening spent in mind-numbing pursuits – a strip club, booze and casual sex. An introspective Eladio celebrates his inexperienced young friend Ricky’s birthday at "a titty bar," together with another friend, TJ, a volatile soul with no direction in life.

A series of macho posturings ensue, and Ricky ends up punching Eladio, who finds himself in the arms of an equally lost stripper named Kathleen. Meanwhile, Jaime – who is having an affair with the sadly alluring Arabella (also TJ’s girlfriend and a confidante who occasionally fools around with Eladio) – tries to reconcile with Ernesto, only to discover that the walls of denial have been turned into a fortress of tragic immovability.

Joanie Schultz directs a committed cast – all in perfect synch with Garces’ David Mamet-like fumblings and interruptions – capable of making their meandering conversations symbols of denial and avoidance. They move throughout an environment that is simultaneously real and imagined thanks to Julie Lutgen and Matthew Osmon’s magical-realist scenic design (such as trees growing out of Ernesto’s bedroom and a blazing orange sun engulfing his head board); and Phoebe Daurio’s painterly lighting.

Linh Thanh Pham delivers an especially intense performance as Jaime, a wiry bundle of rage concealed in lacquered sophistication. He’s a provocative counterpoint to Anthony Sancho’s down-trodden but internally strong Eladio. Gustavo Mellado’s Nestor grounds the play in earthy dignity and regret. And Dana Cruz bravely encompasses the complex sexual-saintly role of Arabella.

But because this dramatic parable so consciously merges the linear with the metaphoric, it can be frustrating to watch at times. We as audience members seek some form of closure, and "Acts of Mercy" refuses to give us any kind of satisfaction. A seemingly haphazard parade of characters (like TJ and Kathleen) are not clearly established; their motivations remain sketchy.

It could easily take more than one viewing to settle into Garces’ dissonant rhythms and dramatic objectives. But his voice is an important one. Garces reigns in the Latino-based magical-realist tradition to more subtly illuminate the emotional contradictions of an immigrant culture at a crucial crossroads in its adopted country.

Richard Maxwell’s "Boxing 2000" – which premiered almost two years ago at New York’s Present Company Theatorium – also addresses the theme of Latino identity in America, a family at odds with its traditions and a society that employs quiet discriminatory tactics in the guise of opportunity. But, as much as Maxwell tries to remove the artifice of theater, he actually hits audiences over the head with contrivance.

His characters – embodied by a mix of actors and non-actors – speak in a void. It’s almost impossible to connect with performers consciously trying to avoid looking like they’re performing. In fact, we’re even more aware of the artifice of theater and its failure to ever mirror real life – which may be Maxwell’s point. The problem is that it takes one excruciating hour to basically say that theater as it currently exists can never convincingly be a genuine evocation of the human condition.

"Boxing 2000" is set in Brooklyn, where a young boxer named Freddie and his supportive older, working-class brother Jo-Jo prepare for a match. They are confronted by an opportunistic Promoter, a Father who pushes his son into fighting and Freddie’s girlfriend Marissa, who envisions a better life. The performance piece, which takes place backstage at the Athenaeum Theatre, is essentially an auteur-induced metaphor for self-actualization and breaking out of the confines of societal expectations. Even Maxwell’s cold dissection of a seduction scene – literally breaking down erotic touching to sterile gestures -- is only briefly intriguing.

But, while there seems to be a market for this achingly pared-down work, I found "Boxing 2000" to be a flat and meaningless experience. My interest was held only by Gladys Perez’s and Gary Wilmes’ truly honest performances as Marissa and Jo-Jo, respectively, and Stephanie Nelson’s industrial environmental scenic design. The "non-action" takes place before a rolling steel door that eventually opens to reveal a weathered boxing ring.

It’s obvious that Maxwell tries to blur the lines between audience and actors/non-actors. But the grating artificiality of the piece made me feel more detached than I’ve ever felt in a theater. In his goal to draw out the ordinary humanity of characters through a sort of non-performance performance style, Maxwell reduces people to mere timbres and cadences.•

Flush Puppy Productions’ staging of "Acts of Mercy" runs through February 3 at Angel Island Theatre, 731 W. Sheridan Rd. Tickets: $10. Call 773-377-5000, ext. 7411 or log onto www.

Richard Maxwell’s "Boxing 2000" runs through January 27 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets: $20. Call 773-PAC-LINE or log onto

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