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Decalogues riffs on 10 Commandments

The Ten Commandments, perhaps the first and most famous Top 10 List in world history, provides divine inspiration to Whole World Theatre's short play festival The Decalogues.

The 12 plays, mostly written by rising Atlanta playwrights, either riff on specific commandments, such as Thou Shalt Not Covet in Steve Yockey's "Haiku," or take on contemporary religious controversies such as non-traditional marriage. Some feature overtly biblical content, such as Christopher Barrant's "The Package," starring archangels Lucifer and Rafael. Others make the connection more subtly: Lauren Gunderson's "Or Not" provides an epilogue to Hamlet from Horatio's point of view.

The Decalogues consists of three programs of four plays a night (each evening lasting roughly an hour). Group One closed July 23 and proved less sacred than profane, with highly inventive moments weighed down by comedic misfires. Judging from the festival's first "testament," The Decalogues provides an inconsistent but intriguing collection that reaches a surprising consensus about the commandments.

Suehyla El-Attar's "Where Do I Come From?" depicts two parents and a narrator (Laurice White) struggling with the question, "Where do babies come from?" Like a satire of a parenting manual, the play takes an offbeat look at gestation, bad parenting and alternative reproduction: We learn that adoption is the favored choice of homosexual or movie star couples. At one point the child (Diana Brown) lies on stage as if in the womb, coughing and otherwise recoiling when the pregnant mother (Laura Kruegar) smokes or engages in other unhealthy practices. Though the narrator stops to emphasize the author's pro-choice politics, El-Attar's play makes a strong case that life begins at conception.

In "Strange Gods Before Me," Robin Seidman offers a shtick-heavy sketch about stereotypical Jewish parents (El-Attar and David Skoke) visiting their son for winter solstice and meeting his girlfriend, a kooky Wiccan witch (LeeAnna Lambert). Though Seidman builds to a smart twist, the sitcom premise plays out with a heavy hand.

Marki Shalloe's "Harvey and Claudia Bury a Dead Dog" isn't exactly subtle. A poultry mogul called The Chicken King has an extramarital fling that ruins two marriages. But the play's quippy dialogue provides a showcase for Shalloe's gift for wisecracks, particularly when the Chicken King's spurned wife (a hilarious Krista Carothers) rails against herself, her adulterous husband and his bimbo mistress: "She thinks 'Dumas' is pronounced 'Dumbass!'" Shalloe initially mocks but ultimately advocates the need for "closure" when faced with life's tragedies.

Deisha Oliver, co-curator of The Decalogues, directed both "Dead Dog" and Yockey's "Haiku," the evening's most haunting work. A pair of private school teens (Angelyn Pass and Rob Bullard) make an illicit rendezvous that reveals tenderness, obsessive jealousy and violent tendencies. Pass and Bullard give remarkably sensitive performances attuned to the hypersensitivity and false bravado of teenagers. The moments of cinematic slow motion don't really work, but the girl's tendency to compose instant haikus deepens the piece's ominous texture.

Whole World's third space remains a problematic place to see a play. A popular venue for new scripts and young troupes, the spare, uncomfortable black box sucks some of the life out of every show produced there and magnifies the weaknesses of low-budget sets or inexperienced actors. The Decalogues doesn't rise above the playhouse's chintzy atmosphere, although it benefits from the stylish touch of the 10 Commandments' text having been painted along the walls in 1960s-style lettering.

Despite its young cast and irreverent attitudes, The Decalogues comes down on the side of the Commandments, rather than undermining them. Seidman's play leans left and El-Attar's has conservative implications, but overall the playwrights affirm the commandments out of common sense rather than ideology. Killing people? Still not a good idea. Committing adultery? More harm than good. Honoring they father and mother? An admirable goal, though parents don't make it easy.

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