A pickup game with no rules

When the SoulFire Traveling Medicine Show debuted last spring with the mesmerizing Faith Healer at Zoë & Company, it was anybody's guess as to whether or not the show would be a one-shot production by the upstart company. But the troupe has now traveled to the Lowndes Shakespeare Center for the summer, with a two-show season of "foul plays," and by the looks of their first entry, it's killer stuff.

"Killing Time" is a surprisingly fresh thriller by Richard Stockwell. The British actor/director broke into playwriting in 1997 with this work, and he proves his knack for making convoluted plot twists seem entirely plausible, all the while building nail-biting suspense in the style of true entertainment.

The play starts innocently enough with the seemingly chance encounter of Rick (Rus Blackwell) and Jane (Jan Taylor-Hendricks) in a supermarket. When Jane appears to have misplaced her purse, Rick helps out by offering to foot the bill and then invites her to follow him home for a cocktail. But what begins as a drawing-room comedy with the po-tential for seduction quickly transforms into supreme suspense as Rick's true motives are made known and secrets from Jane's past and present are uncovered. Too much revelation of the plot would spoil many of the surprises, but suffice it to say, "Killing Time" has as many twists and turns as a theme-park coaster.

Blackwell, one of the guiding forces behind SoulFire, is just right as the suave and mysterious ex-con who meets his match in the equally complex Jane. With defined and deliberate mannerisms, Blackwell brings the character to a slow boil, making his subsequent explosions shocking and terrifying.

As Jane, Taylor-Hendricks looks slightly older than the character's implied age (which, although unstated, seems to be of the 30-something generation), but once the play is underway, that's an easy discrepancy to overlook. Taylor-Hendricks, who looks as if she just walked off a soap-opera set, possesses an extremely classy countenance which provides a rich and striking contrast to the dark secrets she harbors.

Both Blackwell and Taylor-Hendricks take on British accents for the roles, and while neither one remains thoroughly consistent throughout the entire play, their fluctuations never truly interfere with the overall production.

The intimate space at the recently renovated home of the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival (formerly used as a rehearsal stage) places the audience right in the midst of the action. Much of the drama depends just as much on the nuanced expressions of the actors as it does on the dialogue, and the cozy setting allows the viewers to witness first-hand the horrors that eventually play out onstage.

The power of the actors' physicalization of the roles was reinforced at last Saturday's performance, when a lighting glitch caused several minutes of the second act to be performed with only shadowy illumination.

While The SoulFire Traveling Medicine Show happens to be a relatively new troupe, it is one with a strong pedigree. Blackwell is a seasoned performer and one of the original founding members of the estimable Mad Cow Theatre Company, and his SoulFire co-founder John DiDonna has extensive experience both onstage and in the director's chair at Theatre Downtown. As co-directors of this play, their efforts translate seamlessly; perfect pacing hurtles the action through the closing of the first act and then rarely lets up until the stunning conclusion. And set designer Tommy Mangieri has fashioned an extremely realistic-looking British flat that supports the edgy atmosphere.

Thanks to this top-notch troupe, killing time in the theater takes on a new meaning this summer and provides a delightful amount of guilty pleasure.


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