One Out of Two Aint Bad

The American Heritage Dictionary defines "creation" as "an original product of human invention or artistic imagination." One of the things that makes creation in art so exciting is that you never know quite where the experience will take you. The Arizona State University theatre department's current presentation of two one-acts--Angel Seed and Stages, part of ASU's student-playwright program--takes us on a trip from mediocrity to excellence.

The evening opens with David Vegh's Angel Seed, a dark, base story of denial, drugs and desperation. The plot revolves around Kid and Ry, two young drifters who leave Indiana to find Ry's father--and, they hope, success--in Los Angeles, the City of Angels. During a stay-over in a rented dive, Kid reluctantly reveals to Ry that she is pregnant with his child, causing Ry, a heroin addict and dealer, to descend into a drug-addled haze.

Gabe, a mysterious next-door neighbor, observes them both. Gabe, a trumpet player who "lost his wind," has lived in his tiny room since his wife died, 30 years ago. While awaiting a sign from God in the desert sky, he polishes his unplayed trumpet. As a last act of grace, Gabe is given the opportunity to help Kid straighten out her life.

Though these characters' situations are intriguing, Vegh spends little time exploring who the characters are, how they got where they are and why we should care about them.

What Vegh does is have his characters yell, curse and struggle--a lot--though we are never quite sure why. Ry hints at violence in Kid's past; Kid seems to hit a nerve when she suggests they may never find Ry's father; and Gabe seems a dubious savior. But these hints are never fleshed out enough for us to feel for the characters. We leave with the impression that what little Vegh has to say, he insists on saying loudly and offensively.

The cast struggles through the material as best they can. Kristina Ash is a desperate Kid. Aaron Jacobson is a bomb ready to explode as Ry. Ken Love is perfectly strange as Gabe. Jared Sakren's direction valiantly seeks to create some focus in this play; but, ultimately, Angel Seed has its wings clipped at the very root--the script.

In stark contrast to this meandering yell fest is Tania L. Katan's sparkling Stages. In the style of Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey, a raucous journey into a gay man's struggle with intimacy in this age of AIDS, Stages deals with a woman's experience with breast cancer.

Lisa, the play's main character and narrator, starts this fast-paced piece by describing the first time she noticed a lump in her breast. From there, we walk step by step with Lisa through the "stages" of her cancer: from her feelings of discomfort and pain to appointments with callous doctors, surgery, thoughtless hospital visitors, a lover's rejection, individual and group therapy, denial, anger and, finally, the realization and acceptance that a part of her body has been taken away and will never be restored. Lisa's heartache is deepened because she is only 21 years old and in a low-risk category; no one around her can accept that someone so young could be dealing with something as serious as breast cancer.

Though I've watched two of my grandparents die of cancer, Stages gave me my first real glimpse into the mind of someone struggling with this disease. While Katan tells her tale in an uproariously funny way, the thesis is disturbing, convicting and, ultimately, enlightening. Katan's plea for help and compassion for those living with breast cancer is one that deserves to be heard.

Stages tells Lisa's story with an effective mixture of real-life scenes, narration and "singing mammograms." This last device received a mixed response from the audience as a singing telegram reported all of Lisa's test results in tacky, overdone songs. The tastelessness of the humor was reinforced by Lisa's stark fear in receiving the results.

Director Jared Sakren's production keeps up with Katan's genius writing. The pace is heart-stopping, and the imaginative use of the minimal set is fresh and invigorating.

In the lead role of Lisa, Barbi Wengerd electrifies the stage with a natural, sarcastic, transparent performance as the struggling cancer patient. Wengerd moves seamlessly from scene to scene, serving as both narrator and central character, with an approach that draws the audience inside Lisa's mind and emotions. The show rests on the role of Lisa, and Wengerd is a solid foundation.

Other cast members give solid performances, including Jaime Fineman as Lisa's doting mother; Darby Lynn Totten as Alex, Lisa's fair-weather lover; and Lisa Nix as Lisa's patient therapist.

Stages is a theatrical feast. ASU has a true talent in playwright Katan, and Stages is more than enough reward for sitting through Vegh's Angel Seed.

Angel Seed and Stages continue through Saturday, November 18, in Lyceum Theatre, Forest Mall, on the ASU campus in Tempe. For more details, see Theatre listing in Thrills.

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Gerald Thomson