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First Nighter: Three Overly Similar Entries From Manhattan's January Festivals

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If it's true that great minds think alike, it may be equally true that minds a notch or two below great also think alike. The probability struck me when I saw three productions one after another in which monitors and/or screens figure prominently as well as, in two instances, actors spouting verbatim speeches by actual people and, in one instance, a fictional character's speeches radically edited for totally different dramatic content.

Confronted with this trio -- two of them Coil Festival entries, one at the New Ohio, the other in tandem with Performance Space 122/3-Legged Dog at 80 Greenwich, and the third an Other Forces Festival entry at the St. Mark's Incubator Arts Project -- I began to wonder about the ramification of certain zeitgeist developments. Cumulatively, the three strongly imply that clichés are invading supposedly new movements in theater. It impressed me that what's occurring isn't -- to invoke the name of another of the January Festivals abounding -- as under the radar as the people creating and presenting the productions would like to believe.

And have us believe.

Surely, none of the purveyors associated with these offerings consider they're dreaming up mainstream projects. They'd undoubtedly be offended to hear it. Yet, more and more that's how it appears. They're all ruminating along many of the same lines--and ironically, one of the lines they appear to be thinking along is that they're all pushing the envelope when they're doing anything but.

1. Director Phil Soltanoff is behind the Coil Festival's An Evening With William Shatner Asterisk, for which he was aided by writer Joe Diebes and systems designer Rob Ramirez. Their product is an assiduously hour-long editing of single words and phrases the Star Trek actor recited as Captain Kirk.

The new and rambling commentary he makes is projected on a stage left and a stage right screen. Shatner/Kirk is viewed on a center monitor pushed right and left, backwards and forwards by the very severe Mari Akita, who only speaks once and then not about anything videoed but briefly about her background.

Perhaps the trajectories she trods are carefully blocked, or perhaps she can glide her screen wherever and whenever she wants. Either way, the result is the same: a strong hint of movement where not enough is happening elsewhere.

The Evening With William Shatner Asterisk text concerns the arts and the sciences and the predictability and unpredictability of the future. But it's difficult to discern what point or points Kirk/Shatner -- or Soltanoff, Diebes and Ramirez, for that matter -- want to make. Perhaps ambiguity is the amusing goal. If so, the three men drive it safely home much before the 60 minutes have run their slow course.

Surely, the incipient dominance of technology in contemporary culture is an ingredient. Also surely, Soltanoff, Diebes and Ramirez realize they're making no fresh discoveries in that area. Indeed, any fun there is in An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk (not "Asteroid") is the challenge for Star Trek fans to identify segments from which content is culled. The repetitions of words like "civilization," "death," "future" and "phenomenon" until they begin to sound like mantras can tickle the funny bone, too. But that's really about as far as it goes.

2. The Performance Space 122/3-Legged Dog piece of Coil-iana, Tyson vs. Ali, by conceiver-director Reid Farrington -- with Frank Boudreaux's text and Laura K. Nicoll's choreography -- features (no surprise here) a boxing ring. Over it at two corners are monitors announcing the rounds and also the textual focus.

Farrington and Boudreaux have excerpted remarks Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson made on various aspects of their attitudes towards their careers over the years, subjects like endurance, brutality, race lineage and why they do what they do -- "to elevate their life style" is the foremost explanation for the last.

Declaiming at one time or another as Ali (the former Cassius Clay) and Tyson, Dennis A. Allen, Roger Casey, Femi Olagoke and Jonathan Swain not only do more than passable impersonations of the men they're portraying, but they also put in nine rounds of boxing. Though the men boast the kind of physiques that suggest they've done plenty of ring time themselves, they don't necessarily give the fighting their all -- only just enough for verisimilitude. And they're good at everything they're asked to do

While they're sparring, Dave Shelley, as fast on his feet as the other four, performs referee duties. As part of his requirements, he constantly shifts four panels on which are projected parts of the fights Ali and Tyson fought -- though never with each other, a fact many fight aficionados regret.

So again, the real thing is juxtaposed with the theatrical fiddling. Farrington's intentions become clear by the time this 60-minuter is over. He's definitely not in unmitigated favor of the sport -- certainly not when he has the four fighters lip-synch questionable sentiments expressed by boxing powers (Don King among them). These moguls also show up on the reconfigured panels. You might say that at fade-out Farrington and ensemble have scored a TKO.

3. Laryssa Husiak must have looked at herself in the mirror one day and decided she resembled Billie Jean King in the Bobby Riggs days. She is King could be the result of that revelation. For it, Laryssa has memorized sections from interviews the tennis-activist icon gave to Barbara Walters (Louisa Bradshaw), Toni Tennille (Bradshaw) and James Day (Joshua William Gelb, who also plays King's ex-husband Larry).

Husiak reprises the discussions, while cameras roll and she's spotted on nine different-sized upstage monitors. As most celebrities do, King has a story she aims to tell. Therefore, it's hardly shocking when -- repeatedly asked the same questions -- she gives out with versions of the same answers.

Possibly, Husiak -- directed by Katherine Brook -- is getting at the repetitious nature of talk shows and famous-people chat. Possibly, she wants to reiterate the arguments King made for equality in every area, including sexual persuasion. Whatever she's after, however, isn't obvious, or ever becomes anything like obvious -- though it's no harm to have King's philosophical stands and views of professional tennis aired again.

Present on the small stage with its central high riser are four young girls and one young boy. They're on hand to accompany Husiak through a few exercises and do light props and furniture lifting. They're the ones seeing to the cameras, though they don't run them.

Apparently because Husiak regards King as a great liberator, she ends her hour-long piece by singing Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." She really shouldn't.