Culture 2 Go 

Explosive comedy
The Big Bang
Through Oct. 11 at Orlando Shakespeare Theater, 812 E. Rollins St.

If men are from Mars and women from Venus, then Philip Nolen and T. Robert Pigott must be from another planet — if not another galaxy — given their proclivities to impersonate, at will, characters of either sex from any time period, caste, ethnic group, nationality or place of origin. Lucky for us theatergoers, then, that the duo has decided to rocket into town and onto the stage of the Orlando Shakespeare Theater in The Big Bang, a raucous, no-holds-barred slapstick directed by Jim Helsinger with musical direction by John B. deHass.

With a book by Jed Feuer and music and lyrics by Boyd Graham, The Big Bang is as utterly shameless in its dependence on low comedy, politically incorrect songs and cross-dressing shenanigans as are its two stars, who will stoop as low as necessary — and sometimes even lower — for each laugh, groan and guffaw.

The plot of The Big Bang is as completely meaningless as everything else that transpires during this breakneck 75-minute comic brouhaha. Two New York showbiz wannabes, Jed and Boyd, are holding a backers' audition at a borrowed midtown apartment for their new musical: a 12-hour, $83 million affair that purports to cover the entire history of mankind.

Utilizing only the furnishings of the apartment for their props and costumes, the pair plays all the parts, beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Next up are two old Jews building the pyramids in Egypt, featuring a show-stopping performance by Queen Nefertiti. Ancient Rome is the subsequent stop, with Julius Caesar sporting a Brooklyn Mafioso accent; then an imagined meeting between Mary, mother of Jesus, and Mrs. Gandhi, mother of the Mahatma. (When Nolen rhymed "Mohandas" with "modus operandus," I nearly choked.)

Let's see. There was Attila the Hun singing a nightclub ballad; Christopher Columbus sucking up to Queen Isabella; two American Indian old maids downing vodka stingers; Napoleon and Josephine sending up some well-known Broadway crowd-pleasers; a Gone With the Wind takeoff; and a tearful lament by Eva Braun, the girl who just couldn't say "nein."

Very funny stuff!

Big Bang is a piñata of song, dance and clowning — all of it utterly pointless, completely hilarious and brilliantly performed. Catch Nolen and Pigott while they remain on the home planet. Who knows what comet they will latch onto next and where it might take them?

Al Krulick

One size fits all
Dresses … Objects of Art
Through Oct. 9 at the Gallery at
Avalon Island, 39 S. Magnolia Ave.

The show is called Dresses … Objects of Art, but don't come to the Gallery at Avalon Island looking for wearable fashion. In fact, don't look for anything trendy at all — nothing in the show deals with transient taste. Instead, with about 130 works by 11 artists, the group exhibition offers a serious examination into what a generic item of clothing really means — and what it often only seems to mean.

The frocks hanging at the downtown gallery's entrance set the stage immediately and poetically. The frilly prom-dress collaboration between Consuelo Bellini and Donna Dowless looks like a size 0 and is fit for a young princess. Yet its style is old-fashioned, and it is accented with messages for someone on the brink of adult life. "Let your heart guide you," advises one of the fortune cookie—style notes attached to the dress, all expressing hopes and fears.

Around the corner, another mannequin wears another interpretation and offers an equally arresting statement. Melissa Rajsky's dress is a fabric flower, its red petals large and playful. But then you notice that around the garment, titled "Love Me, Love Me Not," are a few scattered petals, and this dress becomes emblematic of a woman's life, and of the power that can be invested in a simple piece of clothing.

A reverse-painted image on a sheet of Lucite, Lynn Whipple's "Dress 25" is transformed by its appearance on the blue back wall of the shadowbox frame it covers. It is, in other words, an illusion: lovely and airy, all fresh and impossible to actually touch.

Nancy Flynn's sheet-metal cutouts, painted but faded and peeling, are shaped like dresses and scattered across a large partition in the gallery in the renovated historic building, which retains its antique charm. Like most of the "dresses" here, they are separated from the women who would wear them; mute and altered into unwearable materials, they evoke vanished people and lost emotions.

Nowhere is that more evident than in "I See Myself," Dowless' mixed-media image of a white dress. Scraps of tulle and a vague outline of a face, sketched or transferred onto the work's paper, add texture and dimension to the basic form. It's just a dress, until you notice the gauzy black fabric that has been draped over its frame as if in mourning, tied into loose, sad bows.

The tone is just as lyrical in Henry Sinn's "When the Goddess of Nature Smiles Again the Earth Will Awaken," a wall hanging that combines sheer organdy and the rough shape of dried grasses and twigs. Draped against a fabric banner, a swatch of glitter-flecked material suggests a swaying skirt. But the bodice, shaped from those grasses, adds a disorienting gritty quality that raises the piece to a disturbing level and makes it unforgettable.

Ultimately, Dresses, with its deceptively familiar title and theme, is a visual and conceptual triumph.

(Closing reception, 6-9 p.m. Oct. 9)

Laura Stewart

Getting what you deserve
Through Oct. 11 at Mandell Theater, Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St.

Considered one of David Mamet's most provocative and controversial dramas, Oleanna is a work in which the inability of people to communicate effectively with one another becomes the root cause of personal and professional damage. It's also a play that examines the power relationships between teacher and student, adult and child, and man and woman. When originally produced in the early 1990s, it resonated with the smoldering fires of the feminist movement and became a flashpoint in the never-ending battle between the sexes.

Under the direction of John DiDonna, a current production of Oleanna by the Empty Spaces Theatre Co. is still a riveting drama between two confrontational characters, even though the passage of time has somewhat diffused its sizzling political import. Veteran Orlando actor Dennis Neal plays John, a rather pedantic but by all appearances entirely conventional college professor who is attempting to achieve the security of tenure, while attending to the needs of his students as well as family matters. As written by Mamet and played by Neal, John is the adult in the room — empathetic, congenial and professional.

Trenell Mooring performs the character of Carol, his emotionally wounded pupil who, in the opening scenes, acts out the pain of a severely injured self-image via childish tantrums and incoherent rants. While John attempts to mentor Carol, her responses to his ministrations appear completely at odds with his intentions; she even goes so far as to accuse him of sexual harassment because he put his hands on her shoulders to calm her. By the dénouement, Carol has succeeded in skewing the healthy norms of master and subordinate, destroying John's dreams of tenure with her accusations of impropriety. And nothing the man has said or done warrants the result that he must now accept.

Mamet is not interested in presenting us with an ambiguous situation in which both characters have equally sympathetic points of view. What the playwright wishes to convey is that within any social or political zeitgeist, truth is dependent upon how the winds of thought and belief are blowing that particular day. So while cloaked in the agenda of feminism and anti-elitism, Carol's lust for power is really the same age-old fight between those who believe they are on the bottom and those who seem to be on top. As always, oppression is in the eye of the beholder and justice is ever a fickle maid.

—Al Krulick

—Al Krulick

Women working together
A Confluence
Through Nov. 1 at Maitland Art Center, 231 W. Packwood Ave., Maitland

While mortgages, money and men occupied many of our minds this stressful summer, four women retreated into themselves and created A Confluence.  Brigan Gresh, Vicki Jones, Dina Mack and Anna McCambridge's self-imposed seclusion resulted in a transcendental experience that is about the algorithm behind the art as much as it is about the aesthetics of the artwork itself.

The artists began with individual themes such as "dermis" (Mack), "apostrophized trees" (Jones), "grief over loss of a loved one" (McCambridge) and "poetic diurnal milestones" (Gresh).  Disparate and unrelated themes, perhaps — but the four brave women, eager to try something new, unite them in a narrative visual experience that unfolds in the center's three rooms.

In the Long Gallery, the artists' individuality begins to dissolve, and a blended narrative takes over. A female figure, at first sadly seated on a rooted pillow, stands in the second panel, turned to her right, with cathartic water spraying down, then disappears into the mist, perhaps temporarily transformed into an owl, floating alone in a rowboat. She reappears in the fourth panel, looking to her left this time, possibly to the future, reborn and ready to face the unknown.  The artists' interlocking themes layer these panels and lend them a mystical quality, accentuated by the owl's presence.

A video infuses the show with atmospheric, minor-key tones, portraying clips of the artists working on the show with an anti—Hard Day's Night attitude. The next room becomes an installation for the four women, who write about love, muse about life, blow off some steam and otherwise fill a narrow layer with text, replacing the grief of loss expressed earlier with a whirl of the here-and-now.

In the final room, the artists return to their own métier: Mack's dermis is transformed from opaque to translucent, filled now with the legs of a bee and pumpkin seeds; McCambridge's beautiful animals symbolize blessings such as "strength" (a deer), "wisdom," "love" and others. Jones, who invested trees with personalities in the beginning, finally lets buds be buds and pods be pods, while Gresh, whose force seemed clearly felt throughout the gallery, appears at the end to be bled nearly white, with tiny curled fragments of thread embedded in small, glossy white boxes.

Content prevails over commerce in this show; the crisp, square, mostly white panels belie a rigorous process. Perhaps the rigidity of the format helped the artists sublimate their egos to unite and create a story that curator Richard Colvin rightly calls "greater than the sum of its chapters." 

— Rex Thomas

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