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Unicorn and KC Actors drink with the devil while Coterie at Night parties with vampires



When a play is set on Christmas Eve, in Ireland, with a quartet of jolly drunks, one expects the hot buttered rum of forced cheer and the over-rich, half-tasty, half-nauseating eggnog of unearned catharsis. Instead, with Seafarer, the triumphant first joint production of the Unicorn and KC Actors Theatre, what we get is a gulp of potent, exhilarating spirits.

Conor McPherson's black comedy slides down easy, shoots to the core and atomizes in every cell. Its high is of the lucid variety, elevating the audience to a breathtaking plane from which one can hear the cosmos whistling past. Seafarer is nothing less than an unnervingly incisive inquiry into the metaphysics of heaven and hell, life and afterlife. That's the burn. The chaser is its vivid pub poetry and raucous, caustic humor.

The play takes place in Richard Harkin's seedy basement (Gary Mosby's excellent set) over the course of a Christmas Eve day and night. The Aristotelian unity of action, place and time provides an elegant classical framework for squalor and dissolution. Richard is a quintessential Irish drunk — charming, blustering, prone to bursting into song. That he has recently lost his sight due to alcoholic shenanigans seems hardly to give him pause. The important thing is that his elbow still bends.

Richard's younger brother, Sharky, a belligerent, chronic fuck-up tenuously and very recently "on the dry," has arrived — ostensibly to take care of Richard, but in truth running once again from the self-inflicted bad luck that dogs him like a curse. The brothers are joined by Richard's genial and perpetually tick-tight friend Ivan, who has misplaced his glasses in the indulgences of the night before, rendering him nearly as blind as Richard. With his usual disregard for his brother's feelings, Richard has also invited his buddy Nicky, who just happens to be the current paramour of Sharky's ex.

Among these increasingly "jarred up" drunks of Christmas past and present there is barely a scrap of good judgment or impulse control to be found. There are, however, dark secrets and unpaid debts aplenty, which surface when Nicky arrives for the traditional Christmas card game with his newly made acquaintance, the dapper and mysterious Mr. Lockhart.

The devil is in the details, and this production gets them right, most crucially in the grippingly vital ensemble performances of its accomplished quintet of actors, under the superb direction of KC Actors Theatre stalwart Mark Robbins.

Allan Boardman's blind, frail, glib and demanding Richard drives the show with his cheerful energy, orchestrating his bibulous buddies with a cocktail of wheedling, tyranny and charm. He's a sentimentalizing, hypocritical bully, but Boardman plays him with infectious, childlike glee. Never mind the stench of his unwashed person and his ragged clothing. When lit by alcohol — which is most of the time — all's right with Richard's world. McPherson lampoons the whole of drink-soaked Irish society with Richard's idea of a "proper Christmas" — boatloads of alcohol spiked with a pious dash of religious bitters.

As Richard's devoted friend, the dimwitted and dim-sighted Ivan, Stuart Rider uses his long, shambling body to strong comic effect, bringing down the house with as little as a pause held just a second too long. But Rider also sneaks in depth; when the dark side of Ivan's alcohol-induced obliviousness is revealed, the stunner is all too believable.

Dean Vivian makes the affable Nicky hard to dislike, despite his takeover of not only Sharky's woman but also his car. As the ill-starred Sharky, David Fritts staggers from resentment to fury to resignation. Sullen and stony when sober, Sharky is even fouler in mood when drunk, his boyish features flushed in wrath. His sprightly brother runs circles around him in their well-worn cycle of abuse, but it's the axis between Sharky and Lockhart that's the spiny backbone of the play.

It's not a spoiler to disclose that Lockhart is the devil himself, the Satan of the Old Testament and Milton's Paradise Lost, the Lucifer who knows and understands divinity better than any mortal could. Victor Raider-Wexler makes a remarkable Lockhart, embodying the full genius of McPherson's characterization of the devil as a garrulous and jovial fellow, free with the blarney, fond of bluffing, exemplary in manner and speech, but, most of all, brooding and yearning. Thus he slums among us humans. Thus he plays cards in Richard's grim den. Thus he wagers for souls, even those as small and grubby as Sharky's. From his shrewd brow to the booming voice emanating from his plushly suited burgomaster physique to his elegantly shod and surprisingly nimble feet, Raider-Wexler gives this devil his due, making us feel acute and unexpected sympathy for the Prince of Darkness.

It's no accident that two of the characters are blind or nearly so, or that the character whose heart is eternally locked against divine grace is named Lockhart. But the layers of symbolism are played ever so lightly, like a chime in a far corner of the universe. When it's time for debts to be paid, the moment comes so softly, you can hear a soul drop.

As for the indelible central image, McPherson has the confidence to touch on his title only once, when the last act splits open like the Red Sea. Lockhart's monologue, delivered with the full force of millennia of feeling, reminds us what language alone can accomplish. They don't call the devil silver-tongued for nothing. The scene is as penetrating a meditation — or is it a manifesto? — as anything you'll hear or read on immortality, love and the perilous and privileged state of being human.

The second collaboration by former Late Night Theatre impresario Ron Megee and screenwriter Mitch Brian, creators of last year's Maul of the Dead (also for Coterie at Night), Sorority House of the Dead is the shoulder- padded, acid-dyed denim sweatshirt of '80s-horror-movie mash-ups. It arrives bedazzled with cultural rhinestones from Nancy Reagan on down and appliquéd with glittery '80s musical patches (Soft Cell's "Tainted Love," anyone?).

With a mixed cast of theater veterans and peppy local high-schoolers, Megan Turek's fabulous wardrobe of legwarmers, neon patent leather and power suits, a Tammy Faye Bakker-sized makeup-and-hairspray budget (designs by Kimberely Queen) and Megee's homemade props, Sorority House has the innocent, shaggy vibe of a school play — one that involves vampirism, lesbianism, slumber-party brawls and dismembered Girl Scouts.

True, House's storyline drifts and swerves like a student driver, and its teen actors get lost in the woods once or twice, but Queen's hysterically mesmerizing appearances as gorgeous and evil house mother Mrs. B snap the production back on course. She is well served by mean-girl acolyte Holly, played with bitchin' conviction by Hannah Ashcraft.

House is buttressed by a top-notch backstage, including Moose Werks' incredible lighting effects, Cody Wyoming's mood-setting vintage synthesizers (played live) and director Megee's free-ranging use of the Living Room's lower level and staircase.

Thanks to an innovative flying "letterboxing" device, House gets gnarly with cinematic techniques like dialogue close-ups and a hilarious scene rewind, as well as a totally rad "montage" set to Bonnie Tyler's histrionic "I Need a Hero" and an all-cast "Thriller" showstopper.

Rush right in. This Sorority House throws one righteous party.

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