The News & Observer - April 20, 2007

Comedy dances over the edge

By Roy C. Dicks, Correspondent

RALEIGH - The usual fare at Raleigh Ensemble Players is gripping drama full of social, political and psychological commentary geared to mature audiences. When the company takes a break for comedy, the aim doesn't change.

REP's current production fits that mold so well that the title can't be published in this newspaper, and its rawness is redoubled by the subtitle: "& Other Plays for Children."

Of course this is no play for children -- or for many adults. Although it imitates traditional children's plays, with a narrator reading stories enacted by cutesy animals and inanimate objects, the production's sexual content, expletive-laden dialogue and politically incorrect observations aren't for anyone who's easily offended. But those ready to see past these elements will find much to ponder in this "serious" comedy.

The script centers on a young female dog (we'll call her Miss P) whose life journey reflects modern society's molding of young women, from the way men treat them to restrictions they face in education and employment. We follow Miss P through failed relationships and the downside of sudden celebrity (alcohol, drugs and image-damaging product endorsements).

Interspersed among the chapters of Miss P's story are separate tales of a talking bush that clamors for the limelight, two interplanetary aliens inadvertently plopped into the play, a newspaper reporter who survives a nuclear holocaust and meets God, and a dancing computer that lures children into violent games. Playwright Jeff Goode's scattershot thrusts skewer everything and anything, from the mass media (TV as the country's political leader), religion (God as a lunatic in a straitjacket), capitalism (a salesman who offers only what people don't need) and sports heroes (top achievers are permitted to kill without consequences).

When Goode hits his targets squarely, the laughter is exhilarating, but there are as many misses as hits. Some segments, especially the inane songs, go on far too long to allow this loosely structured piece to sustain its two hours and two acts. Concentrating on Miss P's story would have made a tight one-act with no longueurs.

Director C. Glen Matthews demands high energy and ensemble precision from the cast. The Thurber-esque cartoon settings, clever costuming and detailed sound effects (team-designed by Matthews, Thomas Mauney and Miyuki Su) add hilarious touches.

Randi Winter makes Miss P's naivete sympathetic, investing the highly physical role with unflagging charm. Her 15 castmates all supply memorable characterizations, most notably Jesse Gephart's cocky shrub, Chris Brown's wisecracking God, Laura Jenkins' optimistic TV set, and Brett Wilson's fairy god-[unprintable].

The parts may be greater than the whole, but this production offers a fun night out with more substance than the standard TV sketch program.