My Uncle Sam No Patriotic Paean

Romance and Sexuality Underlie Much Of The Play's Power

This is not a play for first-time theatre-goers or aficionados of frilly, frothy fare. It's challenging, edgy, even difficult. But for those who enjoy dissecting a right-brain theatre experience as much as they enjoy having it in the first place, there is plenty of meat here to dig into.

The story - far from linear, highly allegorical and surreal - concerns the efforts of an adoring nephew to come to grips with at least part of his favorite great-uncle's life and history. A 1940-1950's Pittsburgh-based traveling salesman of joy-buzzers, glow-in-the-dark crucifixes, x-ray glasses, and other novelties, in his prime Uncle Sam had at least one life-transforming adventure, when he attempted to track down a glamorous night club singer's brother who years ago had robbed her of some stolen money to which she feels entitled. Driven by her promise to marry him if he succeeds, Uncle Sam sets off on a sales trip mixed with a treasure hunt through a long-past Pennsylvania of the imagination.

His quest for the booty, and his nephew's parallel quest to understand Uncle Sam, takes us through a series of interesting and bizarre experiences that mix fantasy with reality in ever-varying doses. At every moment, there are layers of meaning and possibility that easily entrance those who are willing to come along for the ride. And don't be lulled by the "Garden Interludes". They're interesting in themselves and offer a kind of intellectual rest stop, much needed, to be sure, but they also hold clues to the story line's carefully designed conclusion.

Uniform Costumes Give The Production A Fifties Look

The acting is powerful throughout, with all eleven members of the cast providing memorable moments of intensity and internal exploration, even when they're not at the center of the action. Without intending to slight the others, I'll mention only two: Paul Plunkett's "parrot" characterization is a tour de force for several minutes, most of which take place in half-light when other action is occupying center stage. Similarly, Andrea LeBlanc gives us a stunning portrayal of what I took to be increasing drunkenness, without a word or a sound, her back to the audience, half hidden by a chair, while the play's central action swirls elsewhere on the stage. As the play progresses, the most significant action comes more and more to the center of the stage, but there are delights for the audience no matter where you look.

To avoid the dozens of costume changes called for by playwright Len Jenkin, Director Joshua Moyse and Costume Designer Rachel Eberhard have chosen to go with uniforms. The seven men are conservatively dressed like traveling salesmen in shirt, pants, and tie. The women's uniforms reflect more of a glamorous night club atmosphere, including stockings with unusual black patterns at the ankle and knee-length dresses slit almost to the hip. In lieu of most costume changes, the actresses frequently rebuttoned their bodices to show several different patterns of red and gray fabric, but the meaning or intent of these changes was never made clear.

One striking note is the steadfast imbalance in the sensuality of the piece. Perhaps because of the story's 1940s-1950s milieu, the four women we see here tend to rely on their beauty and sexuality, moving like dancers, walking in stylized ways, often sitting or standing in precisely choreographed positions with legs intentionally bared. The men show little sensuality, although a few of actors are fairly hunky and could pull it off, if asked.

Overall, there is a wonderful elegance to the production, with movement, song and dialog flowing back and forth all across the wide, two-level stage in compelling rhythms. [Practical note: If you sit too close, you're going to be doing a lot of head turning - like at a tennis match - and despite your best efforts you won't be able to catch all that's happening.] In fact, there's way too much action, emoting, and intention going on here for anyone to absorb it all in a single viewing. But Director Moyse does a fine job of balancing the play's more poetic elements with its sometimes rocky narrative through-line.

Sadly, the play feels a little too long, and it's extraordinarily difficult to follow through every nuance of story, meaning, and implication. The director and the actors do yeoman work in presenting this challenging piece in memorable moments for audience consumption, but be prepared to put in some time and thought afterwards if you expect to be able to tell anyone something meaningful about what you saw or what it was about.

"My Uncle Sam,"
Written by Len Jenkin
Sacred Fools Theater Company
660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hollywood
March 24-April 30, 2005 (Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m)
No performance on April 1.
Reservations: (310) 281-8337.
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