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Gambit Weekly Wide Awake Dreaming

By Dalt Wonk

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  Dog & Pony Theater Company's Sleepwalking, currently on view at the CAC, is described in its subtitle as "an original performance experience." The description is unfortunate. On one hand, it suggests the vague aims -- and vaguer content -- of most performance art. And on the other hand, it confronts us with that suspicious word "experience," as though we are not to expect anything so mundane as a "play" with a story and characters.

Ultimately, I suppose the subtitle is more for the benefit of the actors than the audience, for Sleepwalking was put together through an unconventional group effort and must have required some very steady nerves on the part of the ensemble.

For an audience member, no such verbal reinforcement is necessary. Sleepwalking, though non-linear and impressionistic in its approach, is clearly a play, and a fascinating play at that. For all its experimental aspects -- both in terms of composition and presentation -- it accepts Shakespeare's basic proposal: it holds a mirror up to nature. The "nature" in question is New Orleans in the here and now -- or at least one imaginative and relevant slice of it. That the mirror has been shattered is appropriate metaphorically and adds a compelling aura of mystery, for part of this play's pleasure comes from the gradual piecing together of connections between seemingly disparate characters.

It is as though we are forced to realize, as the play progresses, that our divided city is, in fact, "one."

The mosaic of characters is so rich that it is difficult to come up with a summary. There is an extended black family: a bedridden patriarch (Harold Evans) cared for by his daughters, one of whom is a high school teacher (Adella Gautier) and the other (Carol Sutton) an ex-teacher who has become mentally unbalanced and now works as a "nanny" for a white family, the Franklins. In addition, we meet the grandson (Kenneth Raphael), a drag queen/entertainer, and a son-in-law (Tony Molina Jr.) who works as a cook and is mistakenly accused of raping a young white woman.

Luis Q. Barroso and Robert Pavlovich star in Dog & Pony's production of Sleepwalking.
The Franklins -- a middle-class white family -- have a health-care problem of their own. The husband (David Dahlgren) feels he must take in his crippled brother (Michael Arata), who can no longer afford the care he needs. Further complications arise when a devoutly Catholic and childless couple (Philip Tracy and Eva Earls) seek fertility advice from a gynecologist (Robert Pavlovich) who also performs abortions at a women's clinic. The husband, egged on by the virulent rhetoric of his priest (Jerry Lee Leighton), kills the doctor and ends up sharing a cell with the accused rapist. Both defendants are represented by the same Jewish lawyer (Anthony Favre), who also numbers among his clients a Kevorkian-like mercy killing doctor (Luis Barroso) to whom the bedridden black patriarch turns for relief. And this summary barely scratches the surface.

There are even a half-dozen songs, some of which (particularly in the first half) are unexpected and amusing. The scenes are brief and combine to form a mosaic with Dickensian quirkiness and scope. There are few "New Orleans" cliches -- either of the tourist or local-color variety. And there is a pleasing complexity of parallels and contrasts amid recurring themes. For this, much credit must go to director/designer John Grimsley, co-conceiver Kenneth Raphael and co-writer Lauren Levy.

The media intervenes in this tangled web in the form of the first lady (Kate Hoffman), with her bland, uplifting sound bites, and through an omnipotent TV that seems to ingest the characters' spirits and function as an alter ego.

The set, a deliberately crude construction of black ramps, appropriately breaks the conventional contours of the theater.

One of the sources of inspiration for the piece, according to the playbill, was Thornton Wilder's Our Town. And the earlier play was, in my opinion, responsible for some of Sleepwalking's chief faults, including a rather overdone attempt at purification through ritual (under the tutelage of a sort of grunge-shaman) and a long chorale of redemption in the hereafter that was considerably less affecting than the dramas that transpired in the "here."

But Sleepwalking's faults are venial and its virtues profound. It's an inventive and relevant original work featuring solid performances by a raft of our finest actors.

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