Phantasmagoric fusion

The Secret Life of Dolls
Through July 29 at Stage Gallery
Lowndes Shakespeare Center
(407) 447-1700; free

When pop hopped into the sack with surrealism in those heady days of the late 1960s, an imp of a movement sprung from their pre-postmodern loins, a movement at once rooted in populist imagery and the illusory dance of dreams and thought, but one firmly ensconced in underground culture. In its nascent form, pop surrealism, aka lowbrow art, took its shape from the creative wanderings of counterculture publications (R. Crumb's comics, for example) as well as the SoCal biker/hot-rod scene, but today, influences run the gamut from the subculture zeitgeist. In fact, a distinction is now made between lowbrow's edgier, more provocative "street" style, and pop surrealism's fusion of classical technique and phantasmagoric imagination.

Brittany Cabral's The Secret Life of Dolls falls into the latter category and finds its essence in the union of two disparate inspirations: Blythe dolls, those mod-goth figurines of the early 1970s, and the storybooks her mom read to her as a child. "I never forgot the images in those books," says Cabral, whose collection of mixed media and acrylic pieces evokes a sort of fairy-tale nostalgia. In "Blue Diamond," depicting a Christina Ricci—like belle blinded by a gale in search of her lost lavaliere, and in the colorfully domesticated scenes of "Summer Showers," "Betty" and "Sewing Shop," every ethereal brushstroke conveys a scene at once melancholy, whimsical and quixotic, while acknowledging Cabral's Southern upbringing. "Andy in the Forest" and "Elephant Travels" brim with an oneiric aesthetic reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, each laced with its own sinister subtext of dread. The Secret Life of Dolls is on exhibit at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, where, fittingly, Oz is being staged.

— Faiyaz Kara

Gorgeous gorge

Science of Speed Eating
9 p.m. Sunday, July 8
National Geographic Channel

Science of Speed Eating opens with a warning: "Don't attempt these competitive eating techniques at home." Oh, no worries about that. I'm not about to ramrod 23 waffles down my gullet in 10 minutes. Or 14 pounds of ribs. Or 20-plus Nathan's hot dogs.

Nonetheless, there are people who do this competitively under the umbrella of the International Federation of Competitive Eaters in hopes of winning as much as $30,000. For those who wonder, as I did, how they eat so much and where it goes, this fascinating if sickening hour offers the answers.

Seems the best of them, like Burger King assistant manager Sonya "Black Widow" Thomas and Wall Street day trader Tim "Eater X" Janus, can turn their esophagi into hollow pipes so the food slips down faster and stretch their stomachs to accept enormous amounts of chow, having trained their brains to ignore signals that they're full and, therefore, avoid indigestion. In their world, competitive eaters are called "gurgitators" and the hazard of the trade — throwing up — is known as "reversal of fortune."

All this is explained in easy-to-understand scientific terms and illustrated in an experiment in which Janus drinks barium and lets University of Pennsylvania doctors watch his ingestion and digestion. You'd think he would have the ability to digest quickly, but the opposite turns out to be true. Their gluttony is revolting, yet the best of the competitors are in good physical condition and relatively small. Janus weighs 170 pounds; Thomas, barely 100 pounds.

— Marc D. Allan

Vonnegut instinct

Happy Birthday, Wanda June
Through July 21, Theatre Downtown
(407) 841-0083; $18

What is the meaning of masculinity? Where does a soldier draw the line between orders and honor? Who the hell is Wanda June? Those questions are raised, though not necessarily resolved, in Happy Birthday, Wanda June, the only play by late author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Under Tim DeBaun's direction, it turns out to be one of the most exciting pieces recently presented by Theatre Downtown.

As we are told, this is a period piece — the well-chosen classic-rock soundtrack and groovy taxidermy-centric décor (by Paul Horan) place us in the early 1970s — but video interstitials of wartime imagery underscore its current relevance. Legendary soldier-of- fortune Paul Ryan has been declared dead eight years after disappearing into the jungle, leaving his young wife, Penelope (Jennifer Gannon), to raise their now pubescent son (Jeremy Ashton). Penelope is pursued by a pair of suitors: the cluelessly confident Electrolux salesman Herb Shuttle (Daniel Cooksley, with notable support from his plaid pants) and milquetoast peacenik Norbert Woodly (Daniel Petrie), the neighbor and family physician. When Paul (Christian Kelty) unexpectedly returns with shell-shocked pilot/pal Col. Harper (Larry Stallings) in tow, he doesn't get the warm welcome his Hemingway-sized ego feels entitled to.

At the start, Penelope tells us (in one of many fourth-wall-shattering asides) that the play is a "tragedy" and "simple-minded," neither of which is true. Vonnegut is known for his science-fiction humanism, but Wanda June highlights his sharp sense of humor. The comedy ranges from sitcom slapstick to pointed political satire, even presenting such absurdist images as a cherubic child and a notorious Nazi playing patty-cake in paradise. This excellent ensemble lands every laugh; Gannon, Cooksley and Stallings are familiar faces at Theatre Downtown, but here they all reveal new layers to their comedic talents.

At the center of it all is Kelty's great white hunter, a mesmerizing man's man who morphs from charming Jack Nicholson-ian rogue to brutal misogynist without losing his magnetism. Paul rages to reclaim his place in a world that considers his violent machismo obsolete, and Kelty makes this primordial passion palpable. If the show has a flaw, it's that Paul's inevitable resignation is so deflating; the alternate ending involving defenestration might have felt more satisfying.

— Seth Kubersky

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