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Just Plain Weird

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Joe Harris' set for Cloning Judson, which is currently receiving its world premiere at Southern Rep, is a somewhat schizophrenic melding of the inner and the outer. In that sense, it is cleverly appropriate for this strange play. Half the set is the living room of a suburban Montana home, with a couch, a wooden floor and two doors that lead perhaps to bedrooms. The other half of the set is a mountain peak covered with bright, plastic grass, hemmed in by the suggestion of underbrush, and a canopy of sky replete with stars. The two places are intermingled. The barrier between them in not secure.

J. Daniel Stanley's text benefits from or suffers from (depending on your tastes) a similar ambiguity. Before the house lights dim to indicate the beginning of the story, you hear a voice explaining Newtonian physics -- provided you listen closely, for the voice is barely audible above some contemporary music, reminiscent of the music in coming attractions at the movies.

When the play begins, Jack Ringer (Aaron Blakely) enters the outdoor set, carrying a telescope and a cassette tape player. His observations are interrupted by Samantha Starkey (Ann Mahoney), who is wearing a white prom gown and a high school athletic jacket and seems to be raving, drunk or stoned -- in any case, not in her right mind. We soon learn that she is the girlfriend of Jack's twin brother, Judson, that Jack has at the very least a big crush on her and that something has gone wrong with the costume party evening that Judson and Samantha are having.

This mysterious opening with its hints of romantic complications, sibling rivalry, guilt and an overarching cosmic destiny sets us up for the story that follows. For the story is a weird mixture of needs and emotions as old as time and contemporary touches that are surreal and funny in a horrifying way. The television in the living room is the portal through which the surreal "now" enters these people's lives.

Having just spent more than two months in hospitals where I watched more television than in the preceding two decades, I can attest to the weirdness that beams in on cathode rays. I don't want to go into the weird story of Cloning Judson in too detailed a way, however. No attitude is so weird that Stanley won't shrug it off, as it were, and explore the true feelings, often angry feelings, that underlie the seeming nonsense or charlatanism.

Suffice it to say, a tele-personality named June Okajima-Marcos (Yvette Sirker) is the host of an interview-type TV show, and she is doing a series of programs on the Xaliens, a sect equally convinced of the existence of outer-space helpmeets and the glorious future promised by cloning technology. Jupiter Xalien (Henry Hoffman) is the leader of this sect and he seems possessed of the sort of charisma that collects impressive donations of funds, demands unflinching loyalty, and could end up with a hecatomb of poisoned believers in a clearing in a South American jungle.

His fashion statement looks absurd to me, but, then again, in the days of Swinging London and the Maharishi, I bought a Nehru jacket on Portobello Road, so who's to say I wouldn't wear a gray suit jacket with tin-foil lapels, a silver-plated weightlifter's belt and a white linen tunic. This mountebank-cum-spiritual leader entrusts many of his most delicate (that is to say, profitable) endeavors to his general manager and sycophant Earnest Xalien (Bob Edes), whose uniform is recognizably Xalienoid, though a touch less grandiose than the masters'. Earnest is earnest. That's his saving grace. But, unfortunately, he is earnestly Xalien. And this poses a problem, as well as offering the promise of relief, for grieving, angry Betty Ringer (Beverly Trask), the mother of Jack and Judson.

J. Daniel Stanley is credited as director as well as writer. He has put together an excellent cast and runs them through their paces with sensitivity and inventiveness. They make his oddball world come alive. In their hands, it seems to cohere. What is the play saying about this oddball world we live in? Not anything that can be jotted down in a sentence. Not by me, anyway. Cloning Judson was chosen from last year's Southern New Plays Festival readings. This year's Southern New Plays Festival of dramatic readings runs through May 26. The nine chosen playwrights all live in the South. From New Orleans, we have Sean Patterson (Get Flanagan, May 11), Emily Brown (Benevolent Street, May 19) John Biguenet (The Vulgar Soul, May 25) and Lenwood Sloan (Vo-Du Macbeth, May 26).

Jack (Aaron Blakely) has a crush on Samantha (Ann Mahoney), his twin brother's girlfriend, in J. Daniel Stanley's Cloning Judson at Southern Rep.
  • Jack (Aaron Blakely) has a crush on Samantha (Ann Mahoney), his twin brother's girlfriend, in J. Daniel Stanley's Cloning Judson at Southern Rep.

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