Carnival Off Balance: Level Ground Arts Visits NOLA

Level Ground Arts, subtitled Theatre Out of Balance, has produced highly unusual, entertaining productions for about two years in Dallas, at various locations. I admire the group’s gutsy determination to carve a new niche in local performance art, with original shows and adaptations that nobody else would dream to take on.

1962 Carnival of Souls movie poster

Shakespeare off the beaten to death path, hurray! Parody has been a strong element (Ed Wood’s Plan Nine From Outer Space), musicals where none have dared to tread (Poseidon: An Upside Down Musical), and adaptation of garish B thriller type films, with added music (Evil Dead: The Musical and Cannibal: The Musical). Cheesy but fun, large casts of varying talents and skills: ALL highly entertaining. Theatre should be entertaining.

In moving into the KD Studio Theatre space, a real home, it seems the LGA folks are searching to expand their self-definition and mission as “theatre for real people, with an open door to the community.” Bollywood Lysistrata took a serious Greek play and camped it up with song and dance. The group dancing scenes and farce humor, so integral to LGA audience expectations, remained fine. Suddenly the weaker acting became obvious and the combining of dark, serious classical themes with exuberant Bollywood production numbers felt forced. A change afoot.

With Carnival of Souls: Purgatorium, Level Ground Arts has moved into socio-political commentary, potentially treacherous turf to tread. (How often do you see master playwright GB Shaw’s overtly political propaganda plays performed outside of academic settings?) Basing it upon a low budget 1962 horror film by Herk Harvey with a cult following, LGA moved Carnival of Souls: Purgatorium, to post-Katrina New Orleans. The heroine, a young, anti-social girl named Mary, has been rescued from almost drowning in her house, and she, along with other survivors, gets quartered at The Superdome and them bussed to Ft. Worth. As the original movie heroine was also rescued from drowning (a car accident), it’s not too far a leap to set this adaptation in Katrina-devastated New Orleans.

The set, lighting, sound and video effects are the best part of this show. Two ominous, tall columns greet the audience as it enters, diagonally placed up and downstage. Made of roughly twisted chicken wire with televisions and debris jammed in haphazardly at various levels, the screens continuously flicker with actual footage from Katrina and immediately after. Far upstage more footage gets projected on a scrim, some scenes shot recently with cast members in New Orleans, some actual disaster footage. Sound and lights (Bill Fountain and Sam Nance) work smoothly in coordination with the non-stop video (Charles E. Moore, Bill Fountain, Alex Wade, Robert G. Shores) to create a creepy, hopelessly numb, deadly ambience, a space where dead and living could mix and it might be hard to distinguish one from the other. Waiting for the play to start, it’s clear something eerie is coming. Chills of anticipation.

There are two problems with this production: one is the script; the other is the acting. No matter how effectively and impressively creative the setting, without a decent script, a show falls flat. This script needs serious edit. The plot diverges on tangents, advancing nothing, resolving nothing. Characters speak poorly written lines (one character tells another, “You are smart and intelligent”). They change motivation and back-story without justification, need or reason. Some characters seem to have no reason to exist at all; it’s hard to tell if they are alive or dead, harder to care about them either way. Several double over every so often in presumed agony; are they cramping from food poisoning? The ghouls’ gavotte is really sweet, shades of Bollywood; but does it fit a show with a serious disaster theme?

The most interesting character in the show is Virgil, at first presented as a “homeless preacher”, friend to lead character Mary. He is the one character the audience can empathize with. But is he really a homeless preacher, or is he a common criminal and mental case?  Is he really an LSU professor ”helping people” in disguise (and why?), or is he a zombie back from the dead? Or is he God? His story changes radically, for no reason, as the play progresses. It’s as if the playwright/ adapter had multiple ideas for Virgil’s identity but didn’t know which to pursue; so he threw them all in, just a little bit. Regional character actor Elias Taylorson does what he can to make Virgil real and believable and hold the audience’s attention; but even a solid actor can’t overcome the shortcomings of a muddy script. By the play’s end, I had lost all understanding of Virgil’s identity and hence, any interest in him.

To “sell” drama imbued with socio-political commentary (potentially dry and preachy), strong acting is absolutely required. I’m not going to single anyone out. Other than Taylorson, this show is a non-stop jumble of some of the worst community-theatre style acting I’ve seen in a long time. “Indicating” rather than “being”: frowning and grimacing, arm waving. Lots of arm waving. Shrieking and braying, braying until my ears rang. It was a real disappointment, given the intriguing set design and production values on display.

Okay, Level Ground Arts. You have a decent home performance  space. You want to take on more ambitious projects, more demanding shows. I admire your spunk, your initiative. I believe your heart and intention are in the right place. I want to give you positive reviews.

Level Ground Arts’  Carnival of Souls: Purgatorium runs through October 16.

They perform at KD Studio Theatre: 2600 N. Stemmons Freeway, Dallas TX

Tickets: 214-630-5491  http://www.levelgroundarts.com

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