Media oversaturation: It’s enough to drive you mad. Bored into our brains by 24-hour news and abetted by a billion bloggers, the fodder of Faux News and TMZ titillation threatens the mental moorings of our society’s most vulnerable: celebrities and children. The wages of sin may be death, but the wages of fame seem to be manic depression, drug addiction and untimely expiration. The infotainment infestation is the foundation for a national nightmare – or at least a night out at the theater. Two current productions take the elements of media and madness and follow them down divergent paths. As to whether it’s worth journeying with them, you may find yourself of two (or more) minds.

Dana Fielding should be happy. The subject of Rebecca Gilman’s The Sweetest Swing in Baseball at Theatre Downtown, she’s an acclaimed painter with a blossoming career, a caring boyfriend and an agent eager to market her into stardom (for a 50 percent fee). But at her crucial gallery opening, all Dana can do is gulp wine and agonize over her self-perceived failures. After an unsuccessful attempt at X-acto-assisted suicide (precise enough for balsa, but not blood vessels), Fielding lands in a mental ward, struggling to mend her shattered sanity before her heartless health insurer bounces her back into the outside world.

Desperately clinging to the shaky stability she’s found with her cuckoo’s-nest companions, Dana schemes to stay in-patient by upgrading her diagnosis from depression to multiple personality disorder. Despite her ignorance of America’s favorite pastime, she selects as her alias the possessor the titular athletic talent: home-run hero turned drug-addled flameout Darryl Strawberry. Dana begins to heal as she retreats within the ballplayer persona, even finding joy in painting again. But when those paintings start to sell, Dana faces the same dilemma as Hamlet: Well-feigned madness is just as slippery as the real deal.

Gilman’s play, (which premiered to mixed reviews in London in 2004) raises interesting questions of self, celebrity and how we learn to enjoy success. However, the script’s philosophy is undercut by lapses in logic that are not aided by this production. Paul Horan’s elegantly minimalist set – a subtle study of squares in shades of gray – provides a fine foundation, but the show it frames is slathered in disharmonious dramatic hues. This kind of black comedy must walk a fine line to work, but too often stumbles with oversized acting and sitcom-ish timing. Doug Shorts and Dean Walkuski make the best of it as a pair of insane ’enry ’iggenses, coaching Dana through her psychiatric fraud: Shorts finds flashes of acidic vulnerability in the alcoholic Michael, and Walkuski devours the padded walls as the poetically psychopathic Garry. But in the central role of Dana, Jamie-Lyn Hawkins overrelies on a manic monotone that quickly grows wearying; it’s an artifice of anxiety impersonating emotion. Dana’s stagy sparring with her shrink (Lori McCaskill) lacks life, and rather than rooting for her recovery, I found myself wishing she had cut deeper.

I’m a fan of director/producers Fran and Frank Hilgenberg and the feeling of family they foster at Theatre Downtown, but I sense creeping aesthetic schizophrenia: balanced between an outpost for provocative art and an outlet of theatrical comfort food, they run the risk of treating the former like the latter, serving neither.

Meanwhile, UCF has taken a much older lullaby of lunacy and given it a multimedia makeover. Director John Shafer recasts Lewis Carroll’s timeless fable as morality tale for the modern age in Alice Experiments in Wonderland – with heavy emphasis on the “experiment” part.

In this post-modern mashup, the Internet becomes an integral player onstage as a transnational magic trick is attempted: While the audience experiences the show at UCF’s east Orlando campus, others are simultaneously spectating parallel productions at the University of Waterloo (Ontario Canada) and Bradley University (Illinois). Alice (Laura Adams) has two “clones” (Kate Teddiman, Johanna Roden), and each teleperforms in another city. For every “Alice,” there’s a “techno-wizard” lackey (Kyle Adkins, Jeff Ulrich, Tahnee Lamon) and a tween’s air of entitlement. Carroll’s anthropomorphized book (a foppish Brian Gell) just wants to tell his time-tested tale, but ADD Alice laughs at linearity, haphazardly hyperlinking her way through the highlights. Together, Alice et al tumble down the rabbit hole into a wired Wonderland filled with redressed denizens in contemporary camouflage.

There’s thrilling potential in this project, with a lesson to be learned about patience and loyalty, but it’s hard to make it out over the digital din. This is the third attempt at long-distance teletheatrics between these schools and by far the most ambitious: Characters interact in real time via video projected on sculptural spandex screens (designed by Vandy Wood).

As a techno-geek I’m awed by the hardware on display, and I’m amazed that they assembled it on a college budget: 70 megabits of bandwidth streaming multiple DVD-quality live cameras across the continent. It’s so cutting edge it bleeds – a second or two of delay dissolves dialogue into awkward echoes like an entry-level iSight webcam. These inevitable technical difficulties would be fully forgivable if only the show’s dramatic underpinnings were firmer. The script-by-committee strips Carroll’s beloved fantasy of nearly all charm, replacing it with shrill sensory overload and groan-inducing pop-culture knockoffs. The Alices have no personality traits beyond self-involvement, and their sidekicks are marshmallow Borg harridans hurling ageist abuse.

The sub-Star Trek techno-babble and awkward aping of hip compu-slang recalls Hackers (circa 1995), and the performances exhibit the insecure overeagerness endemic to middling children’s theater. There is wit in some of the adaptations, like a Cadbury Crème Humpty Dumpty and the Caterpillar who trades his hookah for Nicorette. But among the multitasking multitude, only Brendan Rogers as a pun-loving Gnat connects with the audience the way actors have done for millennia: face to face, eye to eye. If that disappeared, I might really go mad.


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