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Set says more than the play's themes


The set for "The Madman and the Nun" at the Theatre Project is a huge padded cell. To one side is a metallic door, two stories high and trapezoidal in shape. Above the cell, the padding extends heavenward in flame-like shreds.

The jarring angles of the set -- designed by Robb Bauer -- recall another European work about a madman, the German Expressionist movie, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Combined with Scott Rosenfeld's high-contrast lighting and the projections designed by Thomas E. Cole and Sun Kwon, the result is one of the more impressive visual designs ever seen at the Theatre Project.

The text this design serves was written in 1922 by Polish playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, who used the pen name, Witkacy. It's a play as much about the world inside our heads as the world outside. That's where the projections come in. When Walpurg, a mad poet locked in an asylum, has outbursts of hysteria, the tumult in his mind is projected on the back wall of the cell and reinforced by Mark Harp's music and sound effects.

The projections include Witkacy's own swirling paintings as well as pulsing reproductions of Salvador Dali's melting clocks, which represent the constant ticking that torments Walpurg, and churning gears, which represent the machine he insists is grinding away in his brain.

As Walpurg, Tony Tsendeas -- who also directed this Impossible Industrial Action production -- effectively conveys the poet's extreme mood shifts. Straitjacketed and with wild brown hair and an unruly beard that make him resemble Charles Manson, Tsendeas' Walpurg alternately rants about the mental agony he feels and speaks in soft, measured tones to Sister Anna, the nun sent to "resolve his complex," in the words of the cold-and-clinical doctor in charge (Robb Bauer).

The technique Sister Anna uses, however, is hardly what the doctor ordered -- even when the doctor is Walpurg's more sympathetic psychoanalyst (Derek Letsch). In a work that is billed as a comedy but seems more like a melodrama, Donna Sherman's Sister Anna soon finds herself spouting such ponderous sentiments as "Everything I've gone through seems so petty now" and "You must fulfill your destiny." And, oh yes, she hops into bed with the madman before you can say the play's subtitle ("There is Nothing Bad which Could Not Turn into Something Worse").

Anna's behavior may seem far-fetched, but that appears to be Witkacy's point, since his non-realistic surprise ending makes you question the veracity of everything that's gone before. Is Walpurg alive or dead -- metaphorically or literally? Not to mention the type of questions you'd expect from a work of this nature, such as, who's sane and who's insane? Or who's free and who's repressed?

"The Madman and the Nun" lasts slightly more than an hour, but it's not an entirely successful hour. Though the stunning visual production is closely linked to the action, it also surpasses it artistically.

Maybe that's because Witkacy's themes are no longer shocking or maybe because Impossible Industrial Action's interpretation of this play about lunacy treads -- and sometimes oversteps -- the line between the serious and the ridiculous. Either way, this production's look proves more moving than its language.

Pub Date: 4/18/96

'The Madman and the Nun'

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; through April 28

Tickets: $14

Call: (410) 752-8558

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