Violence runs in veins of three new plays 

The classic paradox of violence is that no matter how much you abhor it, you can’t look away from it. Ancient Greek dramatists seized audiences' attention with beheadings or blindings, and then hammered their themes of social instruction. Three new plays by young Atlanta theater artists similarly use violence, or its implications, to provoke the viewer into considering some offbeat ideas.

At Dad’s Garage Theatre, The B-Team follows a band of bumbling jihadists whose members aspire to blow up themselves and/or a prominent symbol of American decadence. At Haverty Marionettes, The Phantom Limb offers an avant-garde study of Albert Fish, an early 20th-century American serial killer. And at Out of Hand Theater, Stadium 360's satirical look at pro football acknowledges the game's inspirational power, but decries the physical damage caused by America’s most concussive contact sport.

In The B-Team, Mohammed (Tony Larkin) runs a cell of incompetent would-be terrorists holed up in Buffalo, N.Y. They’re such second-stringers, group leader Mohammed wears red, white and blue athletic gear at his day job at Foot Locker, and tolerates a spoiled, gabby American called Brian the Jew (Jimi Kocina) in their group. Their boss, Abu Abdallah (a hilarious Randy Havens), calls from Pakistan to abuse them with profane sarcasm. One day he sends an intimidating professional named Sadiq (Stephen Platinum) to lead them on a doomed mission.

The show, directed by departing artistic director Kate Warner, features grisly jokes, including two characters’ flirtatious food fight with bite-size body parts. Despite its irreverent take on the post-9/11 landscape, The B-Team proves surprisingly mild, as if Tony Kushner wrote a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. The play shows more affection toward the homicidal roles than you’d expect, and implies that inside every terrorist, there’s an American materialist trying to get out. (Menacing Sadiq, for instance, sends his burqa-wearing girlfriend gushy text messages.)

Some unpolished performances drag down the production, but The B-Team intriguingly mocks terrorism's tenets while giving the characters chances to redeem themselves. Despite using suicide bombs as punchlines, The B-Team proves more quirky than horrific.

The content and tone of Haverty Marionettes’ The Phantom Limb, on the other hand, spans the spectrum from disturbing to very, very disturbing. Writer/director Michael Haverty avoids dialogue and echoes silent-movie-era entertainments as he ventures into the psyche of Albert Fish, a child molester and alleged cannibal nicknamed the Brooklyn Werewolf.

Patrick McColery plays Fish as tormented but deceptively mild-mannered, while Reay Schloss and Amy Strickland serve as puppeteers and mostly nonspeaking, black-garbed supporting performers. When Fish borrows a life-size little girl puppet from its mother and makes the child dance, The Phantom Limb portrays a skin-crawling image of innocence abused. McColery conveys Fish’s vain attempts to keep his mind from cracking. At one point he reads an unspeakably detailed confession; in another moment he bursts into a frenzied rendition of “You’ve Gotta Have Heart.”

The production also features short puppet-based vignettes that riff on Little Red Riding Hood and Peter and the Wolf, complete with bits of Prokofiev’s famous score. The interludes turn the production into a free-associative meditation on animalistic human behavior comparable to Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves. The Phantom Limb shows no bloodshed, but presents a relentless, claustrophobic examination of abnormal psychology and the human capacity for atrocity.

As if possessed by the spirit of Vince Lombardi, Out of Hand Theater shows a stubborn, never-say-die attitude with Stadium 360, a sharp but lighthearted deconstruction of American football. Written by Ken Weitzman and Out of Hand Theater Company and directed by Adam Fristoe, Stadium 360 uses multiple vignettes in its loose depiction of America’s most pumped-up and aggressive pastime.

Stadium 360 depicts pro sports as a Faustian bargain for would-be athletes. The framing device follows a promising athlete named Ray (Kathleen Donahoe) whose football career is shaped from cradle to gridiron by what could be called the sports industrial complex. Donahoe assumes the posture of the adult male jock, but the script jumps around too much to explore Ray as a character. Incidentally, the ensemble features four women and one man, and the reverse-gender casting draws attention to masculine vulnerability, rather than commenting on oversized macho behavior. In the most haunting section, former ball players, all based on real people, discuss their careers and debilitating injuries in equal parts harrowing detail and gallows humor.

Stadium 360 doesn’t always go on the offensive, and features funny sketches about sports fandom. Like a tomboy Cinderella, Maia Knispel plays a young female fan who grows up in a family of football-hating, NPR-listening yoga liberals. Can her fairy fan-father (Jeffrey Zwartjes) whisk her away to the big game like a princess with a giant foam finger? The production isn’t nimble enough to take successful detours into outright sentiment, such as a drawn-out wake for a lifelong football fan. Overall, Stadium 360 provides enough laughs and articulate commentary to suggest that the Roman Empire's bread and circuses have been replaced by nachos and bowl games. Given America’s capacity for violence, that may count as progress.


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