Friday, August 23, 2013

A superhero with flashy fleet and a putative savior in the nick of time: The Thursday report

Even casually made choices at IndyFringe can yield an entertainment package of the festival's variety in microcosm. My Thursday evening sampling indicated some of the contrasts that even a brief visit can set before you.

In "Tapman: Origin" at the Cook Theater, Chicagoan Tristan Bruns has the wit to take his virtuosity as a tap dancer and link it to a story line. Instead of a recital showcasing in separate numbers his pinpoint balance, endless verve and supple feet, he plays the superhero Tapman, whose goodness has to be judged mainly by the nastiness of his enemies, chiefly the Mad Tapper (played with sinuous elan by a Bruns colleague).

The dance display focusing on Bruns is hung on this story line, which is a little thin and deliberately derivative, to be sure. It's a flexible enough device  to be anchored (through narration) to sites in and around the home of IndyFringe, the Mass Ave Cultural District.  Of course, one of them has to be  (drum roll and cymbal crash) Chatham Tap.

Bruns also sings in a mostly acceptable crooning voice, with pitch occasionally straying but remarkably secure, considering his singing comes in the midst of strenuous displays of his main craft.
What was stranger and harder to take was his choice of speaking voice: raspy, almost croaking, thus  at times unintelligible.

Interludes in the story provide the opportunity for a local troupe of young women, Circle City Tap, to entertain. One of them is given a small but crucial role to play in the main story.

Bruns' stunning abilities, with poise maintained in all manner of intricate steps and a deft variation in technique displayed in a soft-shoe sand dance, should be harnessed to a more theatrically sophisticated presentation.  But "Tapman: Origin" at least acknowledges the show-biz verity that extraordinary skill needs to find a vehicle to showcase it in an entertaining manner. The vehicle in this case just needs an upgrade.

"The Dealer Smiles," a trim, charming comedy by Larry Adams at Theatre on the Square's Stage Two, takes on issues of faith that have been around for centuries.  In a program note, he admits there isn't a single original idea in his script. But he's written a serviceable defense of the Christian outlook, presented through the confrontation of two characters and larded with humor.

Matt (Larry Adams) is weighed down.
The playwright is a Zionsville physician with a couple of decades of community-theater experience under his belt. In "The Dealer Smiles," he plays Matt, a middle-aged man browsing the self-help section of a bookstore when he's interrupted by a brash stranger who uses his need for 50 cents to buy hot chocolate as a conversational ice-breaker.

The ice to be broken is thicker than the polar ice-cap, even before climate change. Matt has recently been through a bitter divorce prompted by his infidelity and is having trouble dealing with the aftermath.  But the stranger, Josh, is more than equal to the challenge.  Played with hearty enthusiasm and salt-of-the-earth naturalness by Jaime Johnson, Josh soon signals he's more than an incredibly detailed hallucination. (He's the origin of the phrase "salt of the earth," among other things.)

Yes, he's a Jesus-figure of implicit authority that suggests you might as well drop the hyphen and the "figure." His talk is slangy, his rhetorical style dogged but friendly, and it's worlds away from the august cadences of the King James Version. Josh engages Matt in a long dialogue about faith. It's fun to follow the interplay between the two. And just at the point when the theological banter threatens to become bogged down in a thicket of pronouns for the deity and what they might mean, the play returns to the matter of Matt's divorce, linking it to his unresolved bitterness about his parents' premature death many years before. Near the end, a whole new challenge for Matt emerges as the trigger of Josh's visit.

The playwright indicated in an interview his intention to make Josh's reality an ambiguous matter. Is he perhaps a figment of Matt's tortured imagination?  Is he just an eccentric drifter who likes to play head games with strangers? (Wait a minute: That's probably what the Pharisees thought Jesus was, isn't it?)

Matt suggests these possibilities as he confronts Josh, but as the piece moves forward, its equipoise tilts toward getting both Matt and the audience to accept Josh as the genuine article. The play thus has a definite bias, but it's a bias that's not a common feature of Fringe shows, many of which declare
biases of a far different kind. That's why I found "The Dealer Smiles" refreshing, and — though Josh is clearly given the upper hand by virtue of his close relationship with the entity who dealt this mess — invitingly balanced and funny.