At first glance the premise of Jane Martin's bizarre 1993 play Keely and Du seems to be the product of a hot-wired, somewhat paranoid imagination: A group of extremists abducts a young woman from an abortion clinic, spirits her away to an underground cell, and keeps her there against her will until she's far enough along in her pregnancy to give birth. Considering the tactics of anti-abortion activists during the last ten years, however, the playwright did not have to make that much of a leap from actual events in order to hatch her story line. The parallels between dramatic fiction and real life -- from the harassment of women entering abortion clinics to the murder of doctors and clinic workers -- make this challenging work all the more alarming.
Barry Steinman directs an assured although sometimes plodding production of the harrowing Keely and Du at New Theatre in Coral Gables. Waking up from a drug-induced sleep, a woman finds herself handcuffed to a bedpost. Talk about a waking nightmare. Three months pregnant after being raped by her ex-husband, Keely goes to a legal clinic to have an abortion, but members of a right-wing group called Operation Retrieval have other ideas for her. Operation Retrieval's game plan for saving the unborn baby includes caring for mother Keely until she's seven months pregnant, then "allowing" her to return home to deliver a baby they assume she will, by then, care about and want. As the smarmy pastor who engineered the kidnapping tells Keely with a paternalistic smile: "I've limited your options and taken away your will." But the group has underestimated its prey: Terrified, furious, yet determined, the prisoner waits for months for the chance to make her move. When she gets it, she doesn't hesitate to take outrageous measures to ensure her freedom.
No matter how dramatic or tragic such material may be in our personal experiences or on the evening news, when turned into an issue-oriented play the highly charged subject of abortion can swiftly grow tedious. Mercifully, Martin refrains from inflicting an op-ed page rant on the audience. Instead she offers us two believable central characters: Keely (Amy Kozleuchar) and Du (Rosina de Luca), an older woman in whose full-time care Keely has been placed by Operation Retrieval. The understanding that develops between captive and captor lies at the heart of the work. How the women come to value one another and attempt to take care of one another gives the play its complexity and humanity. Relying on characterization rather than polemic, Martin pierces the heart of the abortion debate, revealing it to be about sexual politics and the right to personal privacy and choice; at the same time, she points out that the debate should not be about whether life begins at conception, or whether a fetus has legal rights.
Widely rumored to have been written by a man under a female pseudonym, Martin's plays have premiered in a steady march at the Actors' Theatre in Louisville since the early Eighties; her (or his) work never shies away from fractious subject matter, characters who live on the fringe, or fresh methods of presenting points of view. In 1982's one-act comedy Coup, for example, an Alabama town gets up in arms when a black dentist wins the role of Rhett Butler in the annual presentation of Gone with the Wind. Cementville (1991) depicts a woolly band of professional women wrestlers, while 1990's Vital Signs takes on the war between the sexes through more than 30 two-minute monologues performed by two men and six women. Although just as contentious, absurd, and extreme as Martin's previous work, Keely and Du departs from the others because it is not meant to be a comedy. And yet some of its elements are innately funny. A pity then that director Steinman fails to exploit them.
Much-needed doses of levity might have lightened this self-consciously serious production, directed as a patience-trying hour-and-45-minute one act. (Indeed, Martin conceived of the play as a one act in eighteen scenes, although she gives directors the option of presenting it in two acts by noting where to end act one in the original script.) Presumably, both Martin and Steinman favor a long single act in order to drive home the experience of being imprisoned. But as Operation Retrieval's pastor Walter (Roger Martin) might say, Lord have mercy. In this case, life imitated art a bit too exactly; as the evening wore on and I increasingly felt as though I was being held captive, my attention strayed from the action on-stage.
In other ways, however, Steinman's methodical pacing and seriousness of purpose hit pay dirt, and a number of memorable scenes informed by powerful acting consistently drew me back into the story. In particular, Kozleuchar and de Luca share a wonderful scene in which Du smuggles beer into the prison cell on Keely's birthday. As Walter, Roger Martin presents eerily convincing arguments against abortion to the enraged Keely. And in a short but significant episode, Todd Behrend delivers a frighteningly gripping performance as Cole, Keely's purportedly reformed ex-husband. Additionally, Michael Thomas Essad's makeshift fallout shelter set and Steve Shapiro's sound design, complete with the intermittent noise of dripping water, convey a sense of powerlessness and claustrophobia central to the play's themes.
Not a flawlessly written play -- the beginning calls for a distracting series of blackouts, and Du's final fate remains ambiguous -- and not receiving a flawless presentation, Keely and Du, as admirably produced by New Theatre, raises disturbing and provocative questions. After seeing it, you're likely to find yourself searching for elusive answers for days to come.
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Call it passion. Call it commitment. Call it folly. But a quartet of Miami actors in love with the stage has created a new downtown theater company. Never mind that small local theaters are next to impossible to sustain in an art-unfriendly cultural climate. Never mind that downtown Miami rolls up its sidewalks at the end of the workday and sleeps through the weekend. The cofounders of 3rd Street Black Box believe they've hit on a formula for success: serving up theater in the backroom of a restaurant-bar (San Villa Oriental at 230 NE Third St.) where audiences can quench their thirsts and dine before or after the show. "We want to make theater more like the way it was originally intended," asserts company artistic director and former New World School of the Arts student Todd Allen Durkin. "Like a big festival in Greece, where people were eating and drinking and watching plays. And having a good time."
Don't expect an undisciplined bacchanalia after dark, however. These guys have given their company's success some serious thought. "We're a lot more organized than a lot of other theaters we know," insists executive director Faisal Hasan, a New World senior. "Most of the theaters our classmates have begun have basically started because as actors they wanted to do a play and then later they've become a company [as a result of that play's] success. Ours is just the opposite process. We want to become a company that caters to the audience as well as to our actors."
Hasan, Durkin, and their cohorts J.P. Mulero and Ralph de la Portilla (the last two also former New Worlders) seem to understand that building a theater with a long-term vision -- as opposed to limping along play by play -- requires a strategy. So to begin they have secured some space at San Villa, located a block west of Bayside. No, not the restaurant's karaoke corner, but a separate room with a proscenium stage that the actors-turned-producers have painted black and outfitted with hand-me-down theater seats from the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre, as well as with rented lights. They have also assigned themselves administrative duties: Alongside Hasan as executive director and Durkin as artistic director sit Mulero as vice president and de la Portilla as the public relations man. And rather than plunging into an ambitious and expensive full-season lineup, they have scheduled what Durkin calls their "preseason," intended to, as he puts it, "raise money to present a season." So far this preseason has included two one-night showcases of work performed by New World-affiliated talent: Kelly Briscoe's one-woman show about Judy Garland, The Other Side of the Rainbow; and Octavio Campos and Corinna Burrough's performance piece 3 Way Soup. Last week Carbonell Award nominee David Kwiat opened his solo show John Barrymore: Confessions of an Actor. Performed throughout the U.S., as well as in London and at Scotland's famed Edinburgh Festival, the work will run through April 6.
Once the preseason has made a full-fledged season possible, programming will reportedly include dramas such as August Strindberg's Miss Julie, David Mamet's Edmond, and Israel Horovitz's Line. Definitely not invited to the party, according to Durkin, are "your typical Neil Simon or a musical like 42nd Street. Things that have been done here over and over. No revivals. Because there's no more room in Miami to do those things any more." For information on John Barrymore: Confessions of an Actor or future shows, call 381-9613.