The Accidental Tourists

All signs pointed to a potentially disastrous evening of theater: a stifling playhouse; jarringly loud pre-show music; a pretentious Author's Note in the program, warning us that "this play is about my own journey to learn how to feel deeply, truly and immediately . . ."; a curtain that was 15 minutes late coming up.

Once it did come up, and despite these scary omens, Mourning Rituals proved to be an exciting, well-acted one-act. Playwright Alan M. Berks has plenty of trimming to do, but his unpolished new drama, presented by fledgling Blackball Ensemble, still shines. The company, founded by ASU students and alumni and an impressive advisory board that includes Marshall W. Mason and local stage master David Vining, promises an "effort to bridge the gap between educational and professional theater."

They're off to a solid start with this peculiar play. Twentyish brother and sister Jeremy (Steven Galatro) and Juliet (Megan Towle) travel the country, photographing car wrecks and conducting interviews with strangers who've experienced "random accidents" that have somehow altered their lives. They record these interviews on video and audio tapes, then repeatedly replay them, studying details and collecting statistics from others' misfortunes.

They're trying to make sense of the accidental deaths of their parents, who died within months of one another -- dad in a freak accident, mother during treatment for terminal cancer. In a stifling Phoenix hotel room, the pair interrogates Guy (Christian Miller) about the death of his wife, who was murdered by a crazed cop while Guy watched. Later, they tell him about the deaths of their parents.

There's an interesting shift of power as the trio reenacts Guy's tragedy for the video camera. First, Guy is the cop; then, Jeremy is; and each time the scene is replayed, we learn more about each of the characters and the truth about the stories they're telling. These creepy revelations provide the plot with dizzying twists and turns that -- despite a sometimes sluggish story -- keep us engaged.

At two hours, the play is a half-hour too long, and much of the excess -- repetitive dialogue, revisited scenes, and the flashback that opens the piece -- could be cut with no consequence. The story is slow to get rolling; the occasionally overwrought, overlapping dialogue (note to Berks: David Mamet has already worked this quirky trick to death) further slows the story.

While some of the play's darker bits -- like a story about the kids' father being killed when a sign fell on him -- were lost on the audience, the overtly authentic violence was not. The woman in front of me dove under her seat during the bloody climax, and watched the remaining minutes from behind her hands.

Director April Smith maintains a tense, frenetic pace despite characters that spend far too much time fumbling with cassette players and replaying the same audio clips. She makes occasionally unfortunate blocking choices, like placing the kids' video monitor where only half of the audience can see it. That's too bad, because Smith uses that monitor to capture some of the most visually stunning moments of the play, a series of tableaux that reveal the desperation of Berks' seedy characters and that punch up the performances of each of her cast members.

These young hopefuls, who've cut their teeth in shows with names like Dead Mother, Chicks With Dicks II, and ElectroPuss, all perform admirably. Towle takes a while to warm up, but once she does, her performance proves to be the most shaded of the three. Galatro's character lives in a sustained panic that the actor maintains with real style, frantically fidgeting with tape machines and repeatedly reliving his father's death. Miller plays the drunken drifter with wild-eyed aplomb.

Berks offers some compelling questions: Is the course of our lives predetermined? If so, can science overcome fate? While his script could stand some tweaking, its story still offers an unnerving glimpse at some scary people doomed to repeat the same sordid stories time and again.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela