All the Town’s a Stage

Passengers and perversities aboard the world’s biggest floating (at least for a while) disaster.

Relax, Kate/Leo fans. Your favorite cinematic lovers remain as pure as the driven snow-that-hardens-into-glaciers-and-breaks-off-into-icebergs. But this "Titanic" — one of a trio of productions opening locally, alongside bugs at war and a family in crisis — is as similar to the landmark movie as an ocean liner is to the Batmobile.

"We’re trying to stretch the limits to see what our audiences want, but we’re trying to present this in the most tasteful way," says T.J. Larsen, director of Las Vegas Little Theatre’s interpretation of Christopher Durang’s wackadoo comedy.

Aiming for "tasteful" may be as pointless as rearranging those deck chairs.

On this playwright’s bizarro behemoth, asylum-worthy wackos dabble in nonconsensual bondage, spousal execution, paternity claims and counterclaims, characters who actually want to ram the ‘berg, lurid affairs, social slights, gay unions and incestuous, cross-generational marriage. … Plus a woman who keeps small animals inside a rather novel cage — her privates.

Oh, and the ship sinks. Or maybe not.

"Durang wrote it while he was still at Yale, and there’s speculation he wrote it for Sigourney Weaver, who played the one with the animals in her hoo-ha," Larsen says. (Thanks for the biology-class terminology.) "Some characters already know they are going to sink. That gives them a strange permission to encounter and act out their own perversities, while others are in denial of them. Durang shows that we all have strange tastes and skeletons in our closets."

Getting your freak on shifts to getting your family straight in "The Amen Corner" at the College of Southern Nevada. James Baldwin’s early-career play centers around Harlem evangelist Margaret Alexander, rousing her congregation with red-hot religious passion until she’s suddenly confronted with the return of her ill, jazz-musician husband and their son’s alarming aspirations to emulate his dad, the emotional effects rippling through their family.

"I knew, in attempting to write the play … that what I wanted to do in the theater was to re-create moments I remembered as a boy preacher," Baldwin once said in an interview. "To involve the people, even against their will … and hopefully, to change them."

Debuting today as part of CSN’s "Hands Across the Arts" benefit for performing arts students, and continuing with performances over the weekend, "The Amen Corner" is a piece director Walter Mason says wields a potent message, especially as Margaret, after surviving the family fallout, heads back to her congregation a wiser cleric. "She realizes it’s not all in the singing and the shouting and the belief in God as she returns to the pulpit, but in the loving of all his children," Mason says. "Not wanting the little things in life, but knowing real life is to love one another."

But Mason — who knew the late literary legend when Mason directed "Amen" in London’s West End — recalls that Baldwin, after publishing the play in 1954, was frustrated by the theater community. "He felt the theater did not open its arms to him because of restrictions they placed on him," Mason says. "There was a nonacceptance of the writings of people of his culture in America, so people like him and Richard Wright had great difficulty getting their work presented as they should."

Human dynamics as dissected in a ship, in a church and now … on an anthill?

That’s the subversive symbolism of the 1922 anti-war — and arguably, anti-people — piece called "The Insect Play," staged by always-adventurous Insurgo Theater Movement, even when Insurgo’s choices tend toward the obscure or arcane. Written by Czechoslovakian playwright Karei Capek and his brother, Josef, this offbeat metaphorical exercise begins when an old World War I soldier, known only as the Tramp, experiences three visions of insect life, all featuring humanlike behavior.

"It’s a very socio-political play," says director Brandon McClenahan. "It really touches on the true elements of humanity by using something else to show it."

Those entomological enclaves are uncomfortable mirrors of us two-legged buggers. Studying several subsets of insects, the Tramp notices they exhibit similar traits — some loving, some arrogant, some irresponsible — and dismisses their colonization as no improvement on the mess mankind makes. He’s briefly buoyed by the well-ordered ant colony until the capitalist little creatures among them exploit the proletariat ants and squabbles erupt into war.

"(The playwrights) attack the idea that a nation can tout itself as peaceful while engaging in war, and I hate to say it, but we’re a perfect example of that," McClenahan says. "In one of my favorite lines, an inventor, the main ant engineer, goes, ‘Now we have to go to war.’ And the Tramp says, ‘Why?’ And he says, ‘Because we have a war machine.’ "

At least it’s not hidden in some bug’s hoo-ha.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ or 702-383-0256.

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