Quirky writing, inspired lunacy keep Guare's 'Marco Polo' moving


The year is 1999: An astronaut is searching outer space for a new planet to feed the world; the Middle East crisis has been solved by the creation of Saudi-Israel; and Hollywood continues to churn out motion picture epics shot on location with casts of thousands.

When John Guare wrote his offbeat comedy, "Marco Polo Sings a Solo," 1999 was 22 years away. A lot of his predictions already sound a bit off, but that doesn't slow down the Bowman Ensemble's production at McDonogh School. Directed by Matthew S. Ramsay, this show is so wonderfully wacky, it's virtually airborne.

As its title suggests, the play centers on a movie being made about Marco Polo. It's an appropriate subject since, like the 13th century explorer, most of the characters are searching for something.

Camped out on location on a Norwegian island, Stony McBride, the film's director, is searching for his identity. He feels a strong, inexplicable bond with the astronaut (John Benoit), and an even more inexplicable bond with plant life.

Michael A. Stebbins' performance as Stony is inspired lunacy, rendered all the loonier by the gravity with which he attacks the role. One of his funniest moments is a diatribe on the merits of wine made from veal over wine made from grapes, circuitously leading to the conclusion that "man is a plant. . . . We are planted firmly in the ground."

Maybe so, but if humans are plants, the ones in this play are trying to uproot themselves. Stony's wife (Susan H. Cover) wants to run off with a high-powered bureaucrat (Stephen Shaffer) who has aspirations to the Oval Office. The astronaut's wife (Joy Schiebel) has escaped the limelight by posing as the McBrides' Norwegian maid. And Stony's mother (Jacqueline Underwood) turns out to have had a sex-change operation.

Most of the performances aren't quite as inspired as that of Mr. Stebbins', but Mr. Ramsay's direction has created a sense of ensemble that serves the action well, particularly in the more madcap moments.

The script's chief weakness is its reliance on monologues. However, you can almost forgive this thanks to Mr. Guare's delightfully quirky writing, which is peppered with hilarious references to his dramatic antecedents.

Mr. Guare's current, brilliant Broadway hit, "Six Degrees of Separation" -- based on the true story of a con artist who convinced several prominent New Yorkers he was Sidney Poitier's son -- looks almost staid compared to "Marco Polo."

However, the shared themes -- the dangers of celebrity, the desire to be someone else and the need to connect -- shine through the zany surface of this Bowman Ensemble production. It's a glowing opportunity to see an early work by one of the most inventive voices writing for the American stage.

'Marco Polo Sings a Solo'

When: July 28 and 31, Aug. 6 and 10 at 8 p.m.

Where: The Bowman Ensemble, Edwards Gymnasium,

McDonogh School, Owings Mills.

Tickets: $10.

Call: 363-9254.

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