Some time ago, I adopted a rule about not reviewing theater students while they're learning their craft. But last fall, I bumped into actor/director Pamela Fields, who told me about the upcoming production of Lasso of Truth she was directing at ASU. Fields made it sound so interesting, I resolved to break my rule about reviewing college theater and go to see this new play. Once I had, I remembered why I'd made that rule.
Carson Kreitzer's story about the origins of Wonder Woman offers more than a history of a comic book superhero. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, was among the nation's most respected psychologists. He was also a polygamist and, as he's described by one of Lasso's characters, "a bondage perv." Moulton's interests in sadomasochism and female dominance led to his creation of an Amazon who fights crime and escapes, in panel after vaguely naughty panel, from being tied up by various villainous captors.
Kreitzer considers every angle of Marston's life: his impact on nascent American feminism; the influences of his wife and their lover; his invention of the systolic blood pressure test, now a component of the polygraph machine. Kreitzer marries these facts thematically, creating a rather overlong survey of Marston's search for truth with his high-flying inventions.
Mahya Razavi's striking set design is the star of this show. Immense and functional, it offers both realism and high-art surrealist sculpture in several large, movable set pieces that depict a well-appointed home, a tacky apartment, and both the interior and exterior of a comic book store — all flanked by gorgeous, towering die-cut wooden sculptures that disappear into the flies. Up above, video screens project Roy Lichtenstein-esque portraits of the actors and comic book panels that forward the action.
I found myself wishing Fields had choreographed her set changes without so many black-clad stagehands present, but her otherwise facile direction serves to point out the shortcomings of her young cast. Tess Galbiati, as the narrator and young love interest, offers the only fully formed performance. She's a callow young woman seeking answers about her past, just clever enough to be likable, just sarcastic enough that her slow-moving evolution has an edge.
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Act Two is punctuated with confusing reveries in which the cast enacts childish game-playing, and young Austin Kiehle turns up in an electrified hoodie, bellowing free verse through a vocoder. Why? By then, the audience has squirmed its way through several scenes in which young people pretend to be grownups who like to tie up one another and smack each other around. Ouch.
Watching Lasso of Truth is not unlike having a sex act described by a third-grader. I don't recommend doing either.
Lasso of Truth continues through Saturday, February 20 at ASU's Lyceum Theatre, 901 S. Forest Mall in Tempe. Call 480-965-5337 or visit www.filmdancetheatre.asu.edu.