The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Rob Curran, March 30, 2001, Arts

Wallpaper Psalm: New Religion

The Off Center,

through April 8

Running Time: 1 hr, 15 min

Between them, writer Ruth Margraff and director Jason Neulander produce a psalm, a hymn sung in challenging style. These intrepid artists find their hymn in the modern city, leaking through apartment walls.

Chaucia, an elderly lady in an old apartment building, appears to go crazy. Her character insults people and speaks her thoughts. She plays with her sister on the floor, though one has grown snooty and the other hard. This woman must be crazy, right? With the skill of a gymnast, actress Phyllis Porrecca Slattery leaps into the third half of Chaucia's brain. She clings to her finery like a mature Marilyn Monroe. She screams as light from the elevator floor blows up her skirt and mind. Slattery makes convincing advances on young men and fires convincing accusations of indecency at the same young men.

Sharon Elmore steps into the role of Her Sister like a comfy old boot. She loves to gross people out with descriptions of her diseases. Everything makes her laugh, bringing on a hacking cough. She rips through her sister's vanities and pretensions without mercy. Chaucia's sister is a member of everyfamily.

Dan Dietz puts heart into the robot, Robert. Robert, the doorman in Chaucia's building, represents Chaucia's idea of safe and sensible: a man in uniform. Watch out for the sensible ones, Margraff warns. In a beautiful rant against taxes, Dietz sends Robert berserk. The subtle Dietz hints at the psychosis of those everyday people: sensible men who complain about revenue systems. From that scene onward, the audience worries about Chaucia running to the arms of her doorman.

As the Perpetrator, Joseph Meissner personifies an old lady's fears about young men. While Chaucia babbles for attention, Meissner lunges around her in two of the play's most powerful scenes. Meissner vindicates every scruff ever politely asked to leave a hotel lobby, raps like Sid Vicious and then De Niros in an old lady's face -- the dream role.

Featuring song, speech, and church chants, Margraff's text lapses in and out of nonsense. Everybody onstage talks from their own angle, only reacting to the parts of each other's speech which they choose to hear. Once or twice, such as a random appearance from the 18th century, Chaucia's fantasy confuses more than amuses. But sharing in the elderly condition does not mean nonstop entertainment.

None of this would work without the sweet cacophony of the Golden Arm Trio. Like all those crazy orchestras who play at operas, this band cares about the timing of every high-hat fall and string shudder. Unlike some orchestras, Golden Arm Trio rock.

Scenic designer Leilah Stewart's wallpaper looks familiar. The orange warms the old lady's room, but the pattern and the condition mean death and decay. Hair and make-up designer Regina del Pico, along with lighting designer Diana Duecker, give the characters and the scenes a natural veneer of horror.

On balance, this Salvage Vanguard Theater experiment works many times over. Everyone reaches Chaucia's state of mind; our society still grows out of hers. In the rhythms of contemporary speech lies the music of ancient psalms.

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