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Blackbird Theater delivers another strong production with an obscure century-old script by G.K. Chesterton

Believe in Magic



Blackbird Theater continues to impress with its program of challenging, smartly written plays. G.K. Chesterton's Magic, the company's latest mounting, is a worthy production, and local theatergoers won't want to miss it, especially since this relatively obscure piece may not see the light of day again in Music City for the remainder of this century. (Just a hunch, of course.)

Chesterton hobnobbed with some of the great intellectuals of the early 20th century, including George Bernard Shaw, whose influence is evident in this character-rich work pitting medical science and religion against the seemingly unexplainable mysteries of the paranormal. (In fact, Magic, Chesterton's first play, was reportedly a response to a challenge from Shaw himself.) 

The setting is a duke's estate somewhere in England, where it would appear that a grand drawing room comedy is nigh. There certainly is some verbal humor here, and Bradley Jones' richly appointed set keeps viewers happily ensconced amid elegant period furniture, paintings and the trappings of the aristocracy.

The duke himself is an odd duck, to be sure, seemingly a social progressive who can't quite commit all the way to one side of the political spectrum. With him are his Irish niece and nephew, and visiting the house at curtain's rise are a physician and a local clergyman, both of whom are seeking donations for various causes. 

Interrupting the routine, however, is a mystery man — a conjurer whose apparent gifts proceed to spook the houseguests and challenge their notions about conventional religious beliefs, rational thinking and the supernatural.

Company co-founder Wes Driver handles the direction, and his admirable effort is reflected in his strong ensemble, ranging from David Compton's businesslike leading magic man to Chris Bosen's comical pinch-mouthed duke. In between are the appealing Amanda Card-McCoy, returning to this stage after her triumph in Arcadia earlier this season; young Zack McCann, transitioning successfully from Belmont University to the professional arena; and Alan Lee and Daniel Heckman, as doctor and clergyman, respectively, whose literate and passionate performances help to elevate the show's intelligence and wit. Robyn Berg completes the casting with brief but effective appearances as the duke's sharp-minded housekeeper.

Chesterton's script features wicked barbs about men, women, the church, business, early-20th century America, politics and even militant vegetarianism, and his clearly Shavian social sensibility provides moments that are both amusing and thought-provoking. Now 100 years old, the play still rings with truth, as this earnest and respectful revival ably demonstrates.


After the fall

Of all the memorials that have materialized in the wake of 9/11, few are as notorious as Eric Fischl's bronze sculpture "Tumbling Woman," which drew its inspiration from the "jumpers" ­— World Trade Center workers who fell or leapt to their deaths. Fischl's work was considered highly controversial when it appeared at Rockefeller Center a year after the terrorist attacks, and reaction was so strong that the piece was removed shortly after its unveiling.

With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 just weeks away, Rhubarb Theater is staging local playwright Valerie Hart's script Rising & Falling, inspired by the "Tumbling Woman" incident. The action follows the post-9/11 life of a Nashville-based sculptor (Phil Brady) and a woman (Wesley Paine) who obsessively believes that he somehow captured the likeness of her own daughter, who perished in the attack.   

Hart's script doesn't shy away from the stark reality of the tragedy, and recalls the dark event using actual audio broadcasts from the period. In a creative leap, the playwright also brings to life the statues of fallen figures from Greek mythology, thus catalyzing the debate about the value and propriety of public art that commemorates the casualties or heroes of war.  

Other discussions woven into the play's loose structure grapple with the relative artistic merits of minimalism and realism, as well as the sensitive issue of whether the jumpers flung themselves from the building in a final act of self-control or out of some other motivation. 

Director Trish Crist's production benefits from worthy performances, with Paine and Brady doing a noble job delivering dialogue that is sometimes overwrought. Better still are the supporting players, including Dan Millard, who deftly creates several distinct characters; Chaz Howard, whose affecting everyman portrayals include a steelworker with 9/11 baggage of his own; and Clay Hillwig, who ably fills in ancillary roles.

The younger actresses portraying the statues — Kristin McCalley, Maggie Pitt and Elizabeth Walsh — meet that unusual challenge with mixed results: Their recitations are sometimes communicative, other times as stiff as marble.

As an entry in the growing category of 9/11 dramas, Rising & Falling successfully exploits 21st century America's most terrifying event. Yet its curious blend of history, surrealism and town-hall discourse, inspired as it is, seems underdeveloped dramatically. The play runs through Aug. 20 at Darkhorse Theater.    


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