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Lion in the Streets

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Phase 3 Productions has a major project, trying to get the most and best out of a complex, imaginative, sometimes bewildering, occasionally tedious play. It's Lion in the Streets, by Canada's Judith Thompson.

This acclaimed 1990 script, performed in many parts of the world, takes up distressing universalities such as betrayal, cruelty, deception, guilt, profound illness and infidelity. All of them are seen through the eyes of Isobel, a murdered young girl who seeks to understand why she was killed.

Despite the inherent darkness of the themes, comedy and compassion seem to be present, although you wouldn't know that from Meliissa Hill Grande's directing. The mostly skilled cast, however, comes across with sincerity and believability.    

Isobel's ghost frames the conception, first revisiting the nastiness of schoolmates. Then she witnesses and comments on, but is unable to affect, a number of unhappy relationships which have no obvious connections to her past. 

She witnesses a couple having trouble with their sex life; a paraplegic woman giving details about hers; two boyhood friends reuniting while one feels tortured about their youthful homosexual connections; and an elderly priest hearing confession from a gay former altar boy.

Apparently, Thompson's underlying message is that the world is full of evil, and Isobel's death is part of that. In verbose, monologue-driven vignettes about people in the depth of their miseries, Isobel's presence connects them. This doesn't make for much action, or for substantial developments in people not easy to care about -- including Isobel herself, who remains on the fringes. 

Grande's interpretations of the scenes miss some opportunities. For instance, her staging ignores the text's suggestion that two murders might result from pity, rather than anger. Moreover, the priest's scene has the potential to be truly funny, as does a long scene where people debate the deadly effects of too much sugar. Yet Grande's takes remain seriously earnest, adding to an overall sense of a heavy, monochromatic play. 

Five actors interpret 28 characters revolving around Isobel. But they lack versatility, so you may have trouble telling them apart. Allison Scarlet Jaye and Adam Pribila, though, give the paraplegic and the priest good depth. Meanwhile, Sheridan Singleton's Isobel remains one-dimensional. She constantly shouts and leaps, not only losing the meaning of the words but also failing to elicit pity. 

Still, despite some weaknesses in the script, this play has potential to make a stronger, more interesting impression than this.  

 

Lion in the Streets continues through Sun., June 17. Phase 3 at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 542 Penn Ave, Downtown. 1-888-718 4253 or www.phase3productions.org

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