Opening Nights

Diana Moves and Vetala.

Diana Moves

Consolidated Works; ends Sun., Aug. 29 If dedication and a lot of heart were all it took to open a successful show, Rob Knop could pack up his local pet project and take it on the road. Diana Moves, the rock musical he's co-written, has been three years and several workshops in the making, and is surely the product of a sincere passion. What it doesn't have right now, unfortunately, is any compelling reason for an audience to give it the same level of commitment that sparked its creation. The book, which Knop wrote with Sheila Callaghan, is a major culprit—it's not clear why Knop has hung so much on so little. The story is right out of the School of Hard Knocks. Leslie (Meg McLynn) is the devoted daughter of Chelsea (Whitney James), a failed L.A. musician with a drug habit and a sleazy boyfriend, David (John Farrage), who's stingy with the smack but generous in his jones for Leslie. Yep—you do know where that's headed, but not before flashbacks show us that Chelsea's negligence has already caused a fall from a balcony that left Leslie with a limp and a tendency to wax fantastic about her alienation. The sullen teenager is drawn to another odd loner, Marcus (Brandon O'Neill), and loses her virginity just before Mom's addiction gives David the go-ahead to stake his sordid claim. Soon pregnant, Leslie leaves a heartbroken Marcus and drives up the coast to Portland, where they are reunited at a rock show. And, well, that's about it. A lot of musicals have managed with a lot less, yet neither the writers nor director Michael Lindgren seem to know what we're supposed to get out of all this, or how best to convey what they do know. The world of the production is unevenly articulated: Designer L.B. Morse has framed the show with three screens that provide slick, stylized video backdrops (which also host Jordan Christiansen's accomplished animation, which details Leslie's childhood accident), but the drama itself plays out with a tepid, movie-of-the-week realism. The tone is balanced perilously between an awkward faux hipness in which people swear a lot (Chelsea: "You're a dick!" David: "And you're one hot bitch!") and corny pop stereotypes best exemplified by a trio of wildly unthreatening juvenile delinquents (Chad Peterson, Amanda Lee Williams, and Rob MacGregor). The three hoodlums toss around Leslie's sketchbook in the local cafe—coffeehouse thugs?—and seem mere seconds from informing us that when you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way. The cast is determined, if a little underwhelming. Derrick Atkinson can't lend the show the lift he's supposed to as hep-cat narrator DJ Theory, though he and everybody else onstage are giving it the best they've got. The chance to sing brings out the spark here and there in the leads: You can tell James would love her junkie aria to land her a Tommy audition, and McLynn's otherwise wan Leslie is effective when she manages to howl. O'Neill, however, is the real find here: The guy bites into it every chance he gets, and is the only one whose voice suggests the show Knop and company want to deliver. So what else works? Mainly, and commendably, the music, which surges with confidence. With a few exceptions— Stephen Trask's Hedwig chief among them—rock musicals tend to be no more than Broadway show tunes souped up with guitars. But this score, composed by Knop, Steve Hatzai, Mark Volpe, and Knop's band, the Quick, is no Rent-like poseur. Though the lyrics still need a little work, the songs all have a melancholy, West Coast contemplativeness that rocks convincingly; they actually sound like something these people might sing were they to live in a universe that encouraged such expression. The outcasts' mournful refrain ("I want to be you/'Cause nobody wants to be me") is memorable, as are Marcus' excited promise to "Change Things" and a bitter trio in which Leslie, Chelsea, and Marcus all claim that "You Are Gone to Me." Diana Moves has a real pulse in such moments. If it's going to come completely to life, it needs to figure out what to do when everybody stops singing. STEVE WIECKING Vetala

JEM Arts Center; ends Sat., Aug. 28 "East meets West": These words too often signal the sort of hippiefied, self-righteous appropriations of exotic culture that send sober Americans screaming from their prayer mats. We've seen enough of the skinny-ponytailed, Birkenstock-wearing peddler pimping Krishnamurti to know that the deepest traditions of the East are frequently best left on the pages of Penguin classics. It's difficult to find one's proper orientation to the East, to get at the heart of form and meaning that drives a spirit other than the Judeo-Christian; the attempt can ring false. Not always, though. In the hands of the right translator, someone with a strong sensitivity to the nuances of Eastern thought, a melding of cultural forms can be a boon to both sides. Such is the case with Vetala, an intensely pleasing theater piece influenced by a collection of traditional Sanskrit stories. Written and directed with great flair by Defibrillator Productions' Sam Anderson, and based on his extensive travels through South and Southeast Asia, the show is a picaresque collection of fables based on the struggles of Vikram, a traveler who is faced with a series of riddles. Anderson says his play "echoes the improvisational comedy of Balinese shadow puppetry, the juicy melodrama of Bollywood films, the simple grace of Cambodian dance, and the cheesiness of that most ubiquitous of Asian performance forms, karaoke." That's a lot to bite off, but Anderson does a superb job of presenting these various elements without the slightest sense of paternal obsequiousness. The play retains many Western idioms and linguistic ticks, granting it both a strong individuality as well as a sense of respect for the traditional forms it presents. It's both homage and something new, a theater of transformation and discovery. It helps that the large ensemble cast is composed of talented, beautiful people, actors who are likewise sensitive to the material and capable of presenting it with confidence and an infectious sense of humor. This is a play of kinetic movement, incorporating elements of dance, farce, and slapstick; cast members, to a person, prove more than capable of handling the challenge—they're wonderfully fluid. This is a sensuous, sexy, funny, engaging piece of theater by a young company, a work obviously propelled by Anderson's fascination for the traditions he encountered in his travels. He's done something wonderful here by bringing Eastern forms home; his sense of reverence is a touch of grace. RICHARD MORIN

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