The San Quentin Drama Workshop, sponsored by The Theater Collective, is staging two absorbing one-act plays, "Eh, Joe" by Samuel Beckett and "Shepherd's Song" by Rick Cluchey, at St. John's Methodist Church through May 16.
The workshop, an educational, non-profit group, was formed in 1957 when Cluchey was serving a life sentence for robbery and kidnapping. He was released on parole after serving 12 years.
While still in San Quentin, the budding actor/director/writer staged three of Samuel Beckett's plays. As a result, the Irish playwright took a personal interest in the workshop and directed Cluchey in the "Beckett Directs Beckett" series of videos co-produced by the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Maryland's Visual Press.
Beckett, one of the foremost leaders in the Theater of the Absurd movement, wrote "Eh, Joe" for television. Cluchey, with Beckett's approval, adapted the piece for the stage and it debuted at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in 1983.
Short but powerful, "Eh, Joe" is mesmerizing theater. In a difficult acting feat, Cluchey, clad in a rumpled robe, sits alone on a chair on a bare stage and never speaks a word. He is a prisoner of the mind -- plagued by a devastating guilt he feels over a young Irish woman's death.
He cannot shut out her voice which lyrically but mercilessly recounts the lurid details of their star-crossed love affair and her subsequent suicide. The hauntingly beautiful taped voice belongs to the fine Irish actress Sian Phillips. In this spellbinding work, Cluchey can only react with his eyes and barely perceptible facial expressions to Phillips soft, mocking tones.
It is all in the head and Cluchey holds his audience as he traverses his torturous cerebral passage down memory lane.
In Cluchey's original work, "Shepherd's Song," which he also directed, five young HIV-positive patients in a locked detox ward struggle for emotional survival and a modicum of sorely needed self-esteem.
Shepherd, convincingly played by Phil Lewis, star of the CBS-TV sitcom "Teech," is a recovering heroin addict who helps the group face the reality of their medical condition by advocating a solid program of "wellness."
Two members of the "establishment," psychologist Dr. Feelgood (Teresita Garcia Suro) -- with her pat textbook technology -- and Captain Goodson (James Goldthorpe), a rigid fascistic officer of the law, block his progress.
This is a good ensemble piece. The regional cast includes Jeffrey Pindar, Tonya Jordan, Jose Burgos, Thomas P. Gallahan, Maya Key.
Each social outcast has a harrowing story to tell. We hear how tTC abused childhoods led them to crack/cocaine dependency, the mean streets and prostitution.
Cluchey's work serves as an enlightening, but repetitious, docudrama on AIDS rather than strong theater. All the actors are excellent, but the staging is stagnant and the performers are frustratingly confined to a minimum of action.
With much more conflict and a fleshing out of the characters (especially Shepherd) and their histories, "Shepherd's Song" could develop into a theatrical gem.
On a lighter note, the Dundalk Community Theatre is presenting a handsomely mounted production of the perennial musical "Gypsy," directed with flourish by Todd Pearthree.
A full orchestra and good performances enhance this 1959 hit based on the memoirs of classic stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Liz Boyer does well as the ambitious stage mother Rose, but we wish the talented actress would display a greater sense of fanatical drive in the role and imbue her songs, especially "Rose's Turn," with a fierce energy.
Mary Ann Mitchell amuses as one of the strippers and Morey Norkin is a fair Herbie. But Nan Kaestner disappoints as Gypsy when she fails to make the exciting transition from dowdy mouse to glamorous queen of the runway.
Outstanding are Holly Pascuillo as a striptease artist, Abby Margulis as Baby June, Michelle L. Merson as the teen-age June, Edward J. Peters as Tulsa and a solid singing and dancing chorus.