'Illustrated History of Violence': echoes of the present


Sadly, a production called "The Illustrated History of Violence" probably couldn't come at more appropriate time than now, in the midst of a war. But with Desert Storm raging, this satirical revue often doesn't seem trenchant enough.

Produced by the Big Dog Ensemble, a new troupe created by local fight choreographer Lewis Shaw, "The Illustrated History of Violence" debuted last summer as a work in progress. And there's still a work-in-progress feel to the current version, being presented at Towson State's Studio Theatre as part of the Experimental Theatre Festival co-sponsored by the Theatre Project.

But despite a sense of incompleteness, the entertainment value is high, the fight sequences are skillful, and the central theme is disturbingly clear. In a series of short sketches stretching from Biblical times to the Middle Ages, World War II and beyond, what strikes you is how short a distance we've come. The method of warfare has changed; the madness remains the same.

Mr. Shaw, who wrote, directed and acts in this three-person piece, reinforces the notion of recurring violence by establishing patterns that repeat from vignette to vignette. During the Crusades, a Christian and a Muslim vie for the love of a lady. By World War II, only the uniforms have changed as an American soldier and a German fight over a USO performer.

Observing this bloodshed with a jaundiced eye, Dianne Signiski, who plays all of the women's roles, comments, "The women, as is so often true, were either bystanders or victims."

Similarly, it doesn't seem like a coincidence that James Brown-Orleans -- the sole black member of the trio -- emerges the loser in almost every skit. He portrays an American Indian handed a vermin-infested blanket by a Spanish explorer; later, as an African native, he is slaughtered by a white colonialist introducing "real civilization" to "the dark continent," according to Ms. Signiski's narration.

However, "The Illustrated History" -- seen a week ago during a brief run at McDonogh School -- peters out when it reaches the present. After a quick catalog of such modern-day horrors as police brutality, domestic violence and drug wars, the show concludes with two businessmen carrying briefcases. When they strip off their trench coats, they're wearing the same animal skins as their Biblical forebears.

But isn't one of the scariest aspects of high-tech warfare the fact that it need no longer be waged face to face? A push of the button from the opposite end of the earth is all it would take to obliterate us all. Mr. Shaw says he'd like to add another 10 minutes to his hourlong piece; perhaps he should consider ending it not with a bang, but a whimper.

"The Illustrated History of Violence" will be presented Friday through Sunday at Towson State University; call 243-3361.

'The Illustrated History of Violence'

Where: Towson State University Fine Arts Building, Studio Theatre.

When: Tonight, tomorrow and Sunday at 8 p.m.; 2 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $6

Call 243-3361.

** 1/2

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