Current plays Ruined and Painting Churches take place – literally and sociologically – on opposite sides of the planet 

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Photos by Tom Hurst

When I cover two different subjects in a single week, I usually use a clever segue to tie them together. But for this column, I can't even. After spending Saturday morning watching Trump trounce in South Carolina, and Saturday afternoon watching PBS documentaries about the Black Panthers and Tom Bradley, our world feels implacably polarized between "Black Lives Matter" and "White People's Problems." So in the absence of a witty wraparound, I'll simply present these two pieces of theater, both performed in Orlando last weekend, but taking place – literally and sociologically – on opposite poles of the planet.

Earlier this year, Classic Stage Company mounted an off-Broadway production of Mother Courage and Her Children that was nearly derailed when Tony winner Tonya Pinkins publicly clashed with director Brian Kulick, ultimately exiting the title role before opening night over edits that reset the action from the Thirty Years' War to 20th-century Africa. They could have saved themselves the headache and simply staged Lynn Nottage's Ruined instead, since the 2009 Pulitzer-winning script is transparently Brecht's classic transplanted to the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil war.

As impressive a performer as Perkins is (I saw her slay in Caroline, or Change) it's hard to imagine CSC improving upon Valencia College Theater's production of Ruined last weekend. With an exceptional cast and crew drawn from both students and local pros, director John DiDonna assembled one of the best – and most brutal – school shows I've ever seen in Orlando. (Disclosure: DiDonna and I work together on Phantasmagoria.)

Instead of schlepping a wagon across Europe, Mama Nadi (Sheryl Carbonell) runs a bar-slash-whorehouse on the outskirts of a Congolese mine, playing ruthless rebel leader Kisembe (Mark Harriott) against bloodthirsty government commander Osembenga (Essex O'Brien) and profiting off both sides. She stays in the war-torn town to protect (and exploit) her "girls," who include gang-rape victims Salima (Kisheera Victrum) and Sophie (Saige Love), despite trader Christian's (Travis Hadley) constant entreaties to escape.

Ruined's tale is horrifyingly ugly and uncomfortably real, especially in its rawest moments as rendered by Carbonell, Love and Victrum. But it can also be achingly beautiful, both in the potent feminist punch of Nottage's poetic dialogue ("You will not fight your battles on my body anymore" is an especially anthemic line) and the painterly colors of designer Kristin Abel's lights on her rustic set. At times, it was almost too pretty, with DiDonna's butter-smooth transitions softening a climactic trauma, but overall the production proved Valencia is as capable of staging strong, challenging works with diverse casts as any theater company in the area.

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Across town and 6,000 miles away, Mad Cow Theatre took me to Massachusetts with Painting Churches, a 1980s-vintage dramedy by Obie-winning playwright Tina Howe. Free-spirited New York artist Margaret Church (Ame Livingston) has come home to help her upscale parents downscale out of their Beacon Street mansion, but sharp-tongued mom Fanny (Kate Young) is more interested in modeling her designer hats and denigrating her daughter, while put-upon poet pop Gardner (Scott Stoney) can't stop typing long enough to help pack.

What begins as a Boston Brahmin take on the classic BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances gradually turns dark, as dad's didactic doddering is revealed as deepening dementia. The couple alternates heaping adoration and abuse on each other as Margaret attempts to paint their portrait, with their banter invoking Edward Albee and the Bickering Bickersons in equal measure.

Director Tony Simotes comes to Mad Cow from Massachusetts' Shakespeare & Co., and his stars Stoney and Young have performed together in the past at Dayton, Ohio's Human Race Theatre Co. As a result, the show has an authentic-feeling familiarity to the relationships that smooths the audience's entry into this shattering family. And when things really start to crack up, the cast – especially Young – is exceptionally game in acting out their eccentricities, which have them swinging on a tragicomic trapeze between Lifetime Network pathos and slapstick pratfalls.

Seeing Painting Churches on designer Lisa Buck's uber-intimate living room set is a bit like sitting in the laps of your colorful upper-crust neighbors as they lay bare their dirty laundry. Enthusiastic emoting from all three actors helps elevate the play above elder-exploiting voyeurism. But I ultimately found it frustrating trying to empathize with these self-centered, privileged people's plight, when the worst fate they face is a vacation cottage on the Cape and exceptional end-of-life health care (thanks, Mitt Romney). In the end, after flirting with some painful truths, Howe can't help putting a hopeful gloss on her tale with a romantic ending, as if to insure it would play well at a dinner theater matinee. These churches may be professionally constructed, but after the ruins I've seen this week, their paint looks a bit too pale.


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