CURRENT AFFAIRS – ‘Baghdad Zoo’ and ‘Catching the Light’

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We saw two great plays last month and they were as different as they could possibly be – “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” by Rajiv Joseph at the Mad Horse Theatre and “Greater Tuna” by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard at the Portland Stage.

The first, “Bengal Tiger,” was serious, thought provoking, and politically challenging. Performed on a tiny stage, a theater in the round, so that the audience could not help but be intimately engaged, it delivered a powerful message about the depravity and inanity of war. The scene is post-Saddam Iraq and two U.S. Marines are keeping guard at the Baghdad Zoo, discussing their futures, while watching a tiger frantically pacing up and down. Kev wants a friend, a girl, and to go home – Tommy wants to protect his treasures looted from the palace of Uday Hussein, Saddam’s dead son – a gold-plated semi-automatic and a gold toilet seat lid. He dreams of selling them when he returns to the USA, thus financing his rosy future. What happens to Kev and Tommy, to their Iraqi translator and to the tiger – that is the story told in this absorbing but disturbing play, a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

“Greater Tuna” on the other hand is a comedy set in the third-smallest town in Texas. It is a picture of southern, rural American life, displaying the self-righteous, the uptight and the narrow-minded. It is also an incredible performance by two amazing actors who not only portray Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie, morning talk show radio personalities for station OKKK, but also 18 other characters, including a puppy and five women. They accomplish this by dashing off stage and re-appearing seconds later with a change of costume accompanied by a new voice, accent and personality.

Bertha Bumiller campaigns to ban books from the library and schools, especially “Romeo and Juliet,” which she is sure will encourage teenage sex; her daughter Charlene hopes desperately to be a cheerleader but fears she is too fat. Petey Fisk from the Humane Society pleads with radio listeners to adopt stray dogs, while his neighbor Pearl Burras is known locally as a dog poisoner. Vera Carp, vice president of the Smut Snatchers of the New Order, is annoyed when the president of the order, the Reverend Spikes, delivers a long, cliché-filled eulogy for the recently deceased judge whose body was found dressed in a Dale Evans bathing suit. The Reverend makes a spectacular entrance from the back of the theater, jogging down the steps arrayed in a green suit with a splendid large silver cross gleaming on his back and small silver crosses on his lapels.

Both of these productions boast top notch directing, staging and acting.

‘Catching the light’

“Lois Dodd: Catching the Light” is at the Portland Museum of Art – 50 glorious paintings that are incredibly easy to look at and appreciate – they made me smile, nod in recognition of a familiar sight, puzzle a bit over a strange perspective, and finally just lose myself in enjoyment of the glowing colors. Dodd was born in New Jersey in 1927, too poor to aspire to a college education. Fortunately she heard about the Cooper Union in New York City with its full tuition scholarships, applied and was accepted to this prestigious, highly selective institution. She still lives in NYC on the lower East Side, in a third floor walk-up apartment (two artist friends occupy the lower floors) that is part studio and part domicile.

Right after World War II, she traveled to Maine to visit Alex Katz at his summer home in Lincolnville. From that day to this she has spent her summers in Maine, primarily in the town of Cushing. Her paintings reflect her two homes – views of her studio in NYC and of the buildings she can see from her windows, including a homeless men’s shelter, and views of Maine – the woods, flowers, Greek Revival houses, stone quarries. Remarkably, there are no renditions of the ocean, not a one!

I fell in love with several of her paintings – one, “Globe Thistle” 1996, an oil on masonite. Twelve purple thistles stand tall against a sea of green/yellow leaves – a piece of brilliant blue sky peaks out of the upper right corner so you know it is a beautiful summer day. I have a stand of globe thistles in my garden and these painted plants are as real and true as they can be.

“Woods with Falling Tree” 1977 is another winner. A large, vertical landscape of a dense Maine woods, it features a tall, dead, brown pine falling across the picture from the lower right hand corner to the upper left. White birches accent the background with glimpses of white sky between bare branches. It is so realistic, you can almost hear birds singing or see squirrels leaping from tree to tree. I also liked “Red Gladioli” 2005 – the background is every shade of green, representing the foliage and stems of the plants – three stalks cross the painting bending slightly from bottom left to upper right – the bright red blossoms shout out their presence – they absolutely glow.

My favorite was “Red Vine and Blanket” 1979. This was one of Lois Dodd’s puzzling paintings, not realistic but fascinating. A peculiarly shaped shed fills the right side of the painting. An unidentifiable red vine twists voluptuously across the roof and a 15-paned black window is its only feature. A clothesline stretches across the middle of the picture. On the left, taking up the bottom quarter of the painting hangs a blanket – bright orange squares on a bright yellow backing. Dull yellow hills appear in the upper left quadrant – they can’t possibly exist in Maine! I would love to ask Ms. Dodd the whys and wherefores of this one!

An excellent catalog accompanies this exhibition, produced by the curator, Barbara O’Brien of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art of Kansas City, Missouri. The show continues at the PMA through April 7.

Marta Bent lives in Scarborough.

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