Blunt instrument

Meet Rachel Barracuda of the Empire State Arts Council

By Le Wilhelm
Directed by Laura Stevens
Vital Theatre Company
432 W. 42nd St., 3rd Floor (592-4508)
Equity showcase (closes Nov. 21)
Review by Adrienne Onofri

In Meet Rachel Barracuda of the Empire State Arts Council, playwright Le Wilhelm suggests that political correctness and name-dropping have taken precedence over artistic integrity in the theater community and that the government agencies that support the arts are the most to blame.

This is a play that may be most appreciated by Off-Off-Broadway reviewers. We are the ones, after all, who have sat through all the Asian transvestites'productions of O'Neill in pig Latin, and the shows by performance artists who grind beef while arranging flowers, and the nude revivals of Pirandello. Well, maybe not these shows exactly - but we understand best why Wilhelm uses them as examples of nonprofit-theater fare. And just as Wilhelm implies, we know that such far-out theater is not necessarily worthy of attention just because it's revisionist, edgy, or produced by members of historically disenfranchised groups.

Satire works best, though, when it's quick and cutting; Meet Rachel Barracuda is heavy-handed, and it runs almost 90 minutes without an intermission. It's good to hear them make fun of people who start theater companies with their trust funds, and of those Off-Broadway troupes that are oh-so-proud of their celebrity members and backers, and of the idea that visionary art can only come from gays, women, or ethnic minorities. But this material is probably better suited to a skit. It gets repetitive and, even worse, downright malicious toward the end. To shorten the play and tighten its focus, much of the shtick about Ms. Barracuda's personality could be eliminated. Wilhelm is satirizing the politics of arts funding, so this particular bureaucrat's loathsome personality is irrelevant. The musical numbers and dialogue related to Barracuda's quirks may be amusing, but they don't really add anything to the show.

Annemarie Downey's portrayal of the title role resembled Nicole Kidman's performance in To Die For (also a self-righteous, domineering character). Downey was all right, but she tended to keep to one note: stridency. Philip Galbraith and Carey Cromelin were funny as Barracuda's sycophantic assistants, and Michael W. Connors displayed much range as a theater director. Rounding out the cast, Melynee Weber and Jon Rosen lent fine support.

But the conclusion of the play was unsatisfying. Connors's character represents a voice of reason, but Wilhelm forgoes the opportunity to let him triumph in favor of a messy, mean ending. The play also leaves open the question: Does Wilhelm side with the right wing on all those arts-funding debates? In satirizing Barracuda's insistence on multiculturalism, he satirizes her vilification of Republican/conservative zealots. And since he's ridiculing the advocacy of controversial, minority-produced art, he appears to agree with Giuliani et al. (Indeed, the last line of the play is "Sometimes censorship is a necessary evil.")

(Technical director/costumer, Michael Schloegl.)

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 1999 Adrienne Onofri