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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Overcast
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University Theatre's Evening of One Acts show that coming of age in chaos can be both challenging and hilarious
'Dentity Crisis is bizarre, outrageous and very funny.
Credit:Liliane Calfee

Presented by University Theatre, An Evening of One Acts (through March 14 at Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre) is a showcase for early-career talent. Shannon Davis and John Cooper, a pair of acting and directing MFA candidates, direct these projects, and the roles are filled mostly by university students. The plays themselves are works by acclaimed playwrights Christopher Durang and Beth Henley, from when they were starting their writing careers. The pieces, which share the theme of identity, make for an interesting, if uneven, evening.

The first play on opening night was Henley's Am I Blue? Best known for Crimes of the Heart, she is often referred to as a Southern gothic writer, filling her scripts with eccentric, damaged characters with thick accents and dysfunctional families. This piece, written when the Pulitzer Prize winner was a sophomore in college, shows her propensity for mixing tragedy and comedy in strange proportions, and adding Southern charm along the way.

As Am I Blue? opens, a shy and awkward college freshman is drinking in a Bourbon Street bar, trying to get up the courage to visit a prostitute, a gift from his fraternity brothers for his 18th birthday. While this character, John Polk Richards (played affably by Adam Rowe-Johnson), quietly sips his vodka and Coke, he is accosted by a quintessentially quirky high-school girl named Ashbe (Bridgett Vanderhoof). For the rest of the evening, the two desperately try to make a connection with one another since their attempts at connecting with family, friends and the opposite sex have failed.

More of a two-character play with a few extras than an ensemble piece, Blue is ultimately unsatisfying. As Ashbe, Vanderhoof tries too hard to be peculiar and whimsical, often behaving more like a grade-schooler than a teenager. Revelations about Ashbe and John's desire to be understood seem inorganic, and their ultimate friendship seems forced.

The second play of the evening, 'Dentity Crisis, is unmistakably the work of Christopher Durang. Bizarre, outrageous and very funny, it is the story of Jane, a young woman recovering from a nervous breakdown, played by a convincingly bewildered Kate Mann. Jane's mother, Edith Fromage (taken to wide-eyed, hilarious lengths by Erin S. Baal), tries to return the house to "normal," but we see only Jane's apparent break from reality played out on stage. Her mother claims to have invented cheese, her psychologist and his wife both undergo sex-change operations, and she can no longer tell her other family members apart.

Cleverly staged and deftly executed, Daniel Millhouse's transformations are a pleasure to watch as he portrays the randy son, stiff husband, doddering grandfather and dashing count. Equally delightful are Gregory Brumfield and Andrea Kleiner as the gender-switching couple who use various fruits to compensate for the body parts they are missing. Of course the joke is on the audience in the end as Jane returns to her true identity.

The set for both productions relies on large, gray, angled panels to create a variety of backdrops. It is arranged and dressed to great effect by Andrea Alguire for 'Dentity Crisis, complete with a marvelous ballet of stagehands setting the scene around a disoriented Jane in the first moments.

Overall, this is an engaging evening and a chance to see lesser-known plays from well-known playwrights. Just as the young main characters in each play are finding out who they are, the directors and actors who bring them to life are finding their own voices.

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