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Phase 3 Productions wraps up its debut season, themed "Women Behaving Badly," with Chicago-based playwright Aaron Carter's Swamp Baby. It's a play in which the most badly -- even heinously -- behaved are the male characters. Not that the women are angelic. The title character is a freak of the sideshow variety and more than a little demonic: green-skinned with a pointed tongue and tail.

Carter's play employing this savage freakishness as a metaphor for racial identity has (bad-pun warning) an interesting pedigree. The modern, multiracial Chicagoan adapted Kate Chopin's 1892 short story "Désirée's Baby," moving it from pre- to post-Civil War. He extended the tale far beyond Chopin's "surprise" ending into the young adulthood of the "baby," and borrowed from Cassie Sparkman's poem "Swamp Baby." The story's surprise still comes at the end, but getting there is a bit of a mishmash.

OK, I can cope with the theatrical conceit that Swamp Baby, nee Iriana, is represented not with a lot of distracting make-up, but by a normal-looking actor, Lily Junker, who valiantly endures all sorts of indignities in the role. Iriana herself is heaped with abuse, especially at the hands of small-time freak-show emcee Armand Aubigny (rather hysterically drawn by David Santiago). He's a former rich dude who thinks the Swamp Baby is his ticket back to Fat City, via the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.

It's not the most plausible premise, even allowing for the very real human exploitation of what was officially known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, and unofficially as a celebration of American imperialist triumph.

The pomposity, hypocrisy and ultimate cruelty of Western triumphalism are compacted in the Doctor (Ricardo Vila-Roger doing as well as can be hoped with such an unwieldy character), and reflected by Armand. Not that this is all readily apparent at first blush. The play's "present" can start to make sense only after its "past" is completely unraveled, and by then the show's over.

The most sensitive scenes are the flashbacks dominated by strong female presences: Maggie Mayer as the ill-fated Désirée; Debra Humphrey as her foster mother, the regal Madame Valmondé; and Jaime Slavinsky as the unfortunately armless freak/servant, Sylphe.

Director Melissa Hill Grande has her hands too full of fantastic plot, metaphor, revenge tale and character to craft a completely coherent narrative in material that often goes over the top. But give her credit for artistic ambition.

 

Swamp Baby continues through May 3. Phase 3 Productions at the Brewhouse, South Side. 412- 567-5033, www.phase3productions.org

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