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Chapel Hill's Ghost & Spice Productions, resident artists at Durham's Common Ground Theatre, open their 2008-09 season with a bang as they present Eric Bogosian’s Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll with a twist that, surprisingly, has not been done previously. In addition to a cast of four — novel in what Bogosian wrote as a one-man show — Ghost & Spice supplements the script with live music, casting and center-staging a different local band each night of the run. This is one way the company puts the Rock back into the play. The other is creating rock-solid characterizations for ten of the most diverse set of backsliders ever assembled on a stage.
Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll nicely fits the mantra of Ghost & Spice's "Small but Mighty" self-description, in that monologues do not need a set. This allows G&S to use every last inch of Common Ground's small black-box theater, and still have room left over for a stage band, a wide and nicely cluttered entrance ramp, and a rogues' gallery of pix of several mentioned 1960s and 1970s rock icons. The featured band gets the whole stage-right wall for a logo, and the audience is supplied with earplugs in case the band gets to be more than a guest can handle. Several nearby Ghost & Spice patrons used theirs while Roxcetera did their thing on Saturday night, bookending as well as bisecting each act of five characters.
Roxcetera is a band configured a la the Beatles, with three guitars and a trapset. Vocals are supplied by the lead singer on rhythm guitar, and backups on lead guitar and drums. Bass is supplied by the fourth member, who, as never seen to date, uses a pick. Roxcetera's dual-pronged claim to fame is that they are Heavy Metal, and all-female. Their harmonies are good, but the sound design made the vocals completely unintelligible, playing a far-distant second to the overriding thunder of the triple guitars. The group's dress and demeanor are Punk Rock, but they truly do worship the god of thunder. As such, a lot of the original music they supplied degenerated into noise. They did, however, make sure that the rock in Rock & Roll needed no further explanation.
Rus Hames, the director of Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, plays two of the show's 10 roles — each of which is given a one-word title in the program. Hames also co-creates the production's lighting design with fellow cast member Jeff Alguire.
In his first role, "Grace," which tops the Act I lineup, Hames plays a homeless man panhandling on the street. He makes himself known to those passing by with a singular approach to asking for money: a simple loud reiteration of his history, interspersed with "I am not a drug addict" and "I could be pointing a gun at you right now," so that he can make his point that, if you help him, you could save him from a (further) life of crime.
Rus Hames has the script down cold; but in an effort to make this narrative a "speech," rather than a monologue, it comes out incredibly flat. He redeems himself in his other role, "Bottleman," which opens Act II. The part of a mentally challenged middle-aged man, who collects bottles and cans for a living, gives Hames a real chance to delve into a character and earned him the night's best applause.
"Candy," which is a girl's name and not a sweet, is on tape; and we get it between "Bottleman" and "Rock Law," performed by Anthony Hughes. Candy is at the other end of a 900 number, and there is not a lot there other than an emphasis on the first word of the title. "Rock Law," whose speaker is an attorney, portrays a phone warrior who cannot even speak to his secretary except by telephone. Unlike most of the other people in the work, this man has "success," if you define it as big house, trophy wife, and lots of money. But, like most of the characters in Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, this guy is low on the ladder, mostly because he is a scumbag who treats his mistress better than he does his employees, or his wife. Hughes gives our lawyer man great nuance while giving us visual images of those he speaks with at the other end of that phone line.
Lormarev Jones supplies a pair of characters that very possibly have mental problems exacerbated by drug use. Her second character, "Artist," sits conversing with others while sharing a joint and explaining why she no longer makes art. Her characters are asexual in that they may be either sex; both look at New York as home, but a highly toxic place to be. The artist blames it on computers and the government. "Dirt," from Act I, blames the very evident toxins in the pollution that both surrounds and inundates the city. Of the two characters, "Dirt" turns out to be the better medium for Jones, in that the argument makes more sense, even coming from a homeless person, and the monologue also gives her a deeper character to create.
Jeff Alguire also performs double duty in this play, in that he is not only co-lighting designer of the show, but also the only cast member who performs three characters over the course of the evening. Of the three, two are portrayed similarly in that, seemingly, the same character is played, except that he has been greatly affected by varying histories. "Stag" is portrayed by Alguire as a Bruce Springsteen interpretation, revealing the details of the party he and a buddy threw last night for a third friend who is getting married, uh, today. Alguire gives a truly convincing character but had trouble keeping his principals straight, occasionally calling Joey Stewie, and vice versa.
The other character played by Alguire who seemed very similar, though nicely portrayed, was the man in "Live," which is a verb, not an adjective. This man is so rich it seems there is nothing too expensive for him to have, and he is pleased to make his pal Jimmy acutely aware of it. But Alguire gave his best interpretation first, in only the second monologue of the evening, in "Benefit." A reformed 1960s rock star whose band has made a comeback is on a talk show with "Bill," to promote a benefit concert for the "Indians" of the Amazon jungle. In long black hair and a Cockney accent, Alguire gives the very best reason of all to stay off drugs, while coming dangerously close to belying the whole shebang with his transparent tales of life on the road, wasted.
Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll is sometimes referred to as a gallery of "Losers of NYC," but most of these characters are familiar enough to us to crop up in any metropolitan setting. Ghost & Spice does an excellent job of making them swiftly identifiable and extremely sturdy in their traits and foibles. But one has to question the decision to make the play a cast of four, when the play is clearly written as a one-man show. We are left to ponder whether any of the four would pull off the show so convincingly, if a one-man show it truly was.
Nevertheless, it is a finely wrought set of characters, entirely entertaining and supplemented nightly by the best our local bands have to offer. "The Pneurotics" opened the run Friday night. These bands will play for the remainder of the production: Sept. 11th: "Hammer No More the Fingers," small-club-arena rock; Sept. 12th: "Sea Cow," a Durham quintet; Sept. 13th: "Veronique Diabolique," a quartet in search of a fifth; Sept. 14th: "Lost In the Trees," a folk orchestra; Sept. 18th: "Veronica Blood," raw, spooky gothic; Sept. 19th: "Pink Flag," a name that could possibly get them sued; and Sept. 20th: "The Travesties," a collection of local heavy hitters from bands past.
This production continues through September 20; for details, see our calendar.
Supplemental info: Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll (1990 play and 1991 film): http://www.lortel.org/LLA_archive/index.cfm?search_by=show&id=1302 (Internet Off-Broadway Database) and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0102888/ (Internet Movie Database). Eric Bogosian: http://www.ericbogosian.com/ (official web site), http://www.myspace.com/ericbogosian (MySpace.com), http://www.lortel.org/LLA_archive/index.cfm (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=111641 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0091899/ (Internet Movie Database).