Outside the box 

New company debuts with eclectic evening of songs and shorts

Atlanta's new performing troupe Jack in the Black Box Theatre Company introduces itself to Atlanta in a highly literal way. The first sight you see at its debut show mylady/ malady is a massive black box, pushed into the Art Farm performance space by an ensemble of masked, jumpsuited individuals.

The first piece in the cabaret-style production is a stylized version of Ralph Stanley's "O Death," either a deliberately bold or unwittingly inappropriate statement from a new theater at its "birth." Jack in the Black Box's mission statement expresses its eclectic interest in music, dance and design as well as theater, and as a showcase, mylady/malady represents the group's diversity of tastes, though its execution has definite ups and downs.

Wearing masks with exaggerated expressions, the jumpsuited figures evoke the European costume theater Mummenschanz, and are on hand for the evening's three musical numbers. Co-artistic director Marty Aiken, costumed as a derelict, sings "O Death" a cappella with impressive fidelity to the song's original phrasing (made newly famous in the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack). As wind sound effects blow and Aiken slowly enters from behind the audience, the masked people arrange blocks as steps leading up the black box, into which Aiken disappears at the song's end.

It's an effectively mordant image, and though the other songs are more upbeat, their lyrics also evoke illness (picking up on the "malady" of the evening's name). A highly mannered, white-faced ringmaster-type pops from the box to croon "La Grippe," a composition from the Squirrel Nut Zippers that sounds of Kurt Weill and gives the theater a Brechtian vibe. The second act begins with Tristan Towne as an apparently dying woman, rising from her wheelchair for a smoldering version of Peggy Lee's "Fever" as the masked dudes snap their fingers.

The wordless performance piece "American Dreams" seems the most successful expression of the kind of theater Jack in the Black Box is drawn to. Here the masked ensemble watches large, projected video images, staring in terror with each channel change then quickly imitating whatever they see, pantomiming baseball games, saluting the flag, aping Elvis' swivels and Neil Armstrong's moon-walk, etc. These patterns are utterly disrupted with the intrusion of the most shocking TV images of last year, and the ensemble's behavior begins to gradually change, making a neat little statement about the influence of mass media on complacent audiences.

mylady/malady is otherwise comprised of more conventional theater pieces, including two original sketches set at restaurants (with managing director Kannon Keane playing the waiter). Co-artistic director Jon Tyler Owens' "The Problem" shows a woman (Johanna Linden) who's admitted an indiscretion to a friend (Emily James), while Aiken's "Let's Get it Over With" depicts a woman (James) on her first date with a co-worker (Steven Westdahl) who has outrageous quirks. Neither sketch quite clicks, with the former proving a little too subtle, and "Over With" being not subtle enough.

Aikens also writes "In the Order it Was Received," a series of four, one-sided phone conversations with Bill Chameides as an increasingly frantic everyman. Those where he deals with convoluted automatic banking menus and extensive delays are interminable without being very funny. But the other two, in which he tries to communicate to individuals on the other line, can be rather affecting. In one, he makes a desperate call to an estranged lover, while in the other he calls 911 in a state of hysteria, unable to give the operator critical information in a matter of life or death.

Not all of the short plays are original to the troupe. With allusions to "The Dick Van Dyke Show," David Ives' droll "Captive Audience" depicts a married couple (Towne and Craig Glassco) being unwittingly manipulated by voices from their television (Westdahl and James, amusingly perky). In Tennessee Williams' "The Chalky White Substance," Keene and Aikens convey the conflicts of love and societal pressures between two men in a blighted, post-apocalyptic America.

Co-directed by Owens and Aikens, mylady/malady wrestles with death, disease, madness and the limits of communication technology, although its greatest opponent is tedium, with the more imaginative works bogged down by the draggy ones. Though Jack in the Black Box reveals some eccentric ideas, the group seems to have genuine dedication to entertaining its audience, which seems the best cure for misguided notions.

mylady/malady plays through Feb. 9 at the Art Farm, 835 Wylie St., Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m. $10-$12. 404-688-5787 or 404-584-2078. www.jackintheblackbox.com.


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