Peak Skills

In the age of so few statesmen and so little great theater, I feel privileged to recommend New Theatre's production of Mountain, a three-person, no-prop, no-set show. It builds its magic from flawless direction, excellent performances, and the ingeniously written tale of Supreme Court Justice and statesman extraordinaire William O. Douglas. When the total work is this powerful, I find it best to state the facts up-front.

The grandeur of the piece stems from its subject matter. Teacher, judge, mountain climber, and social reformer, Douglas possessed that rare combination of traits belonging to a true hero: He was assertive but open to opinions other than his own, ambitious but concerned with every man's welfare, brilliant but humble in the face of nature's awesome design. Playwright Douglas Scott meets a mighty challenge in depicting this man from childhood to old age A he manages to bring forth his courage, spirit, and even his deepest regrets about what he did not accomplish, such as restoring America to the ideal democracy intended by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

For his form Scott chooses a nonlinear presentation, wandering freely but not aimlessly from 1898 to 1980. Beginning at the time of Douglas's death in 1980, this work dramatizes the sweep of his life through flashbacks: his early childhood battle and triumph over polio, his days as a schoolteacher in Washington state, his tenure at Yale Law School, his appointment to the big bench by FDR, four marriages, expeditions to the Himalayas, and, of course, his role in landmark decisions, including Brown v. Board of Education, which formally ended segregation in the schools.

Scott's dialogue, based loosely on Douglas's own words, is witty, simple, and poetic, the hallmark of great contemporary writing. At one point Douglas quips, "I'm trying to learn how to hit a golf ball. Maybe it'll help me get along better with Republicans." And toward the very end, Douglas waxes metaphysical: "Do you have any idea what leadership means?" he queries. "Climbing a mountain, every day, every hour. And if you're truly out front -- alone -- then you are the mountain you're climbing. Discovering yourself as you find the path, inch by inch. And no 'hero' can do it for you."

Such speeches can, in the wrong hands, seem stagy or stall the dramatic movement, but not in this case. The combination of Scott's rapid-paced action, Rafael De Acha's equally fluid direction and the cast's dead-on timing make Mountain a roller coaster ride you don't want to leave.

As Douglas, Bill Yule sputters, roars, implores, and generally embodies a wide range of emotions (and ages) without once ringing false. His portrayal is so charismatic and at the same time so honest one imagines that Douglas himself has returned from the grave. An actor can do no better. Although Yule owns the largest and showiest role, Phil Kraysler and Lisa Friedman, playing a variety of men and women in the judge's life, also manage to display impressive performing ability and a broad palette of characterizations. Friedman in particular offers finely honed acting skills, especially when in the space of a few moments she expresses the essence of Douglas's four very different wives, merely by subtly changing facial and physical gestures.

Ultimately, though, a great share of the credit must go to De Acha for orchestrating this symphonic work, which first debuted in New York in 1990. He understands the rhythms of the playwright, maintains the underlying urgent beat, and blends three players together in perfect harmony.

Mountain is a superb theatrical piece. See it as soon as possible.

Stage Notes
When playwrights Charles Busch and Charles Ludlam first developed their "ridiculous" theater parodies in the late 1960s, little did they know that in the 1990s practically everything on film or television would be so stupid that these camp comedies would seem like satiric genius. They've spawned a host of excellent imitators, all with tongues firmly embedded in their cheeks.

The form which isn't for everyone generally features performers in drag, campy jokes about romance and other social habits, and tends to be set in the Annette Funicello-Beach Blanket Bingo milieu. Plot developments go far beyond the melodramatic, with characters developing more and more bizarre traits as the play progresses. For example, in Busch's classic Psycho Beach Party -- currently enjoying a perfect production by the Florida Playwright's Theatre -- the teenage surfer girl is suddenly seized by multiple personality disorder. In Zombie Prom the teenage boyfriend commits suicide but comes back from the grave in order to take his best girl to the prom. Fort Lauderdale authors John Dempsey and Dana Rowe's nutty triumph is given an impressive production by the New River Repertory.

Psycho Beach Party, directed by Busch protege Eric Bedenbaugh, is set in 1963 Malibu and traces the unfortunate and ludicrous events in the lives of Chicklet, the psycho surfer; Star Cat, her Ken-doll hero; Berdine, her ultranerdy best friend; and her vicious, Joan Crawford-like mother. In this production almost everyone bravely adopts the correct way-over-the-top attitude from the start. But above all Jackie Newman Eshet steals the show when her outlandish but oddly sympathetic persona flips from the surfer Chicklet to a black grocery checkout girl to a Dr. Ruth character to the devilish Anne Bowman.

Zombie Prom's standout is actor Leslie McMillan-Perez as the haughty high school principal Delilah Strict, who appears so voluptuous in a linen suit that Cindy Crawford might be envious. The dialogue, about a boy and a girl who must make some slight adjustments when he turns up as the living dead, takes the form of song. Fortunately, the cast contains uniformly excellent singers, in particular McMillan-Perez and Stacie Turner as the young heroine, Toffee.

I hate to seem like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but let me enthusiastically urge you to: 1) Gather together your pennies; 2) Go see Mountain, then; 3) Go see Psycho Beach Party, then; 4) Go see Zombie Prom.

And have a wonderful week.

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