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[whitespace] Sic Sense

Actors Theatre's '(sic)' makes the words work

By David Templeton

At one point in Actors Theatre's sharp new production of Melissa James Gibson's play (sic)--now running at Railroad Square's new Sixth Street Playhouse--a would-be auctioneer named Frank (David Yen) morosely deconstructs the famous tongue twister about Betty the batty baker who wonders if her bitter butter makes her batter better. Dejectedly, Frank ultimately challenges Betty's culinary integrity, saying, "I'm beginning to suspect that Betty's motives were purely alliterative."

One could conceivably make the same charge of Melissa James Gilbert, a supremely clever, OBIE Award-winning playwright who, in this 2002 off-off-off Broadway sensation, is clearly more interested in the way words work than with presenting a linear story. The cash-strapped apartment dwellers who populate (sic) are the kind of people who hide their existential aches and pains behind a screen of clever, educated and vaguely condescending phraseology, constantly letting loose with funny, finely tuned remarks like "Why should I spend my life examining the expectancy of every pregnant pause?" and "If you can spell 'bourgeois,' you are bourgeois" and "What rhymes with 'letter of eviction'?" while magnifying every other angst with the same language-obsessed aptitude for wordplay.

When would-be author Babette (Jenifer Cote) overemphasizes her delivery of the word "I" in a particularly condescending observation--the kind of thing where someone says, "Well, I certainly didn't leave the cat out last night"--the would-be theme-park-ride composer Theo (Jeffrey Weissman) wonders aloud, "Did she just hit that adverb with something akin to mockery or was that merely my imagination?"

The title of the piece, (sic), is of course the grammatical Latin-derived signal used in written texts "to indicate that a surprising or paradoxical word, phrase or fact is not a mistake and is to be read as it stands," to quote Webster's. This is an apt enough name for a play in which someone makes the cutting observation, "The mistake is precisely what is of interest."

Adding to all this merry word-wackery is the fact that Gibson's brilliantly experimental play, in its script form, has absolutely no punctuation--no commas, no periods, no question marks, no exclamation points. The meaning of every word, every sentence must be teased out, pulled up and decided upon by the actors and director, with the result that every new production is entirely different. With or without punctuation, it's the kind of dialogue over which actors have been known to kill each other just for the privilege of speaking it onstage.

The Sixth Street Playhouse stage, too new yet for anyone to have been successfully killed over, nevertheless boasts a to-die-for set designed by Rich Desilets. A miraculous mishmash of levels and false edges, Desilets' set suggests the third floor of an old New York apartment building, showing just enough of Frank, Theo and Babette's tiny adjoining studio apartments to create the properly cramped, compromised and presuccess state in which all three characters find themselves.

I'm not revealing much about the plot, because, in classic absurdist tradition, there isn't much plot to reveal. When not isolated in their individual apartments, the contrary trio meet in the hall to gossip, flirt, swindle, complain, argue, compete, play, alienate and find solace in each other, all while Frank practices his auctioneer exercises ("At least leave the lederhosen" and "Romance is really rather a riddle") and as all three drop grammar-soaked one-liners like "You say 'thing' like it has a capital letter" and "I want you to leave me the four letters that sound like 'duck' alone."

There is a slight through-line about an upstairs neighbor who might be dead, and another about the trio's never-seen mutual friend Larry (who used to date Frank and might have stolen Theo's mysteriously missing wife). And then there are the occasional snippets of conversation from downstairs, as the second-floor couple (the voices of Argo Thompson and Danielle Cain) meticulously plan a very orderly break-up. Oh, and Theo tries to get Babette to be his girlfriend, while she tries to borrow money she plans to never return.

Other than that nothing much happens. And that's plenty.

Because of course, in true Seinfeld fashion (a show that has been frequently compared to (sic) in its various productions), nothing can add up to an awful lot, and can be frightfully funny, when it's done or said by the right group of people.


Actors Theatre's new production of '(sic)' runs through April 17 at the Sixth Street Playhouse, 52 West Sixth Street, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $22 general, $18 senior and $15 youth. For more info, call the box office at 707.523.4185.

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From the April 6-12, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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