Stage: Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Everyman Vince Davis (center) gives a mouthful to titular characters T Bone (Lloyd W.L. Barnes Jr., left) and Weasel (Chris Burnett).
T Bone N Weasel
Thru April 14 at Circle Theatre, 230 W 4th St, FW. $18-28. 817-877-3040.
Geographical Oddity

Someplace between drama and comedy, Circle Theatre’s T Bone N Weasel gets a little corn-fused.


Playwright Jon Klein, who currently heads the MFA playwriting program at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., reaches back to an old but very familiar literary genre for T Bone N Weasel, now a staple of regional theaters nationwide: the picaresque. If you want a quick and apt example, see any of the majority of films made by the Coen brothers during their eclectic but uneven career. A picaresque is really an excuse to display the human animal with circus-like fanfare, as a charming and disreputable hero slouches his way through a series of adventures involving wacky, often dangerous characters. (For some reason, women rarely wind up as picaresque protagonists, perhaps because they’re less convincing in “clueless mode.”) This is a format well-suited to the stage and, more specifically, to an actor whose jones for applause cannot be met with a single role. Watching one performer don and doff different characters as easily as gym socks is not just a pleasurable bit of braggadocio; it also serves to remind ticket buyers just how disconcertingly predictable and similar people are underneath their various clothes and accents and attitudes.

Circle Theatre’s current staging of T Bone N Weasel borrows a little bit of its antic spirit from that Lone Star mainstay Greater Tuna, although the former’s not quite as clever in its satire of Southern eccentricity. The playwright instead tries to explore serious issues of still-present racial divisions in America while showboating a bevy of glad-handing politicians, horny senior citizens, and unflappable head-injury victims. At a recent performance, the two moods never quite jelled under the otherwise canny direction of John S. Davies. If T Bone doesn’t quite stick to your ribs the way it wants to, at least Davies and his trio of resourceful actors make sure it’s fun going down.

On a nearly bare stage, the show brought titular characters T Bone (Lloyd W.L. Barnes Jr.) and Weasel (Chris Burnett) almost full circle. Though both ex-cons fresh from the pen, their philosophies are quite dissimilar. As a black man in the “back roads of South Carolina” who’s still regularly referred to as “boy,” T Bone lacks the enthusiasm needed to set his life on the straight and narrow. Let’s just say that opportunities aren’t exactly taking his door off the hinges, so he makes his own criminal attempts at a living, like robbing liquor stores. Meanwhile, his dim but endlessly energetic, white copilot Weasel keeps insisting that he’s going to get a job and live on the right side of the law. He wants to bring T Bone over with him and attempts to do so via a series of jobs, including construction and rice field work. But Weasel is oblivious to the hindrance that his pal’s skin color brings — until T Bone gets it in the teeth. In the show’s best summation of how Anglos and African-Americans often live in two very different worlds, Weasel keeps pleading, “You know, T Bone, I just don’t think about those things.”

As these two ne’er-do-wells travel the countryside living hand to mouth, getting drunk, stealing cars, and sleeping under bridges, they encounter a menagerie of local denizens — a racist sheriff, a farm-owning widow who expects stud service from her workers, a very unhappy car salesman named “Happy Sam,” and a wealthy aspiring politician who endeavors to use the guys as examples of how his campaign is helping the unemployed. All four, and more, are played by Vince Davis. These sorts of virtuoso multi-role turns usually either awe or overwhelm the audience, and Davis managed a bit of both. He let his hambone instincts fly in some moments, especially when playing psychotic street preacher the Rev. Gluck, and in others — as when he was spot-on in recreating the rigid, twisty limbs and posture of head-injured Lemuel Clayborne — he used the character’s physical attributes as sly comic devices rather than making them the object of ridicule. Regardless, there was something infectiously compassionate about his approach, and you never dreaded his stage entrances, no matter the costume or mannerism.

Likewise, playing the straightmen to Davis’ quick-change comedy act, Barnes and Burnett wore their luckless drifter roles with unself-conscious ease. Burnett has a long string of credits in children’s theater, and he has the kind of perpetually boyish mug that makes you believe Weasel can find his way out of almost any scrape. Barnes lends just the right blend of gravitas, resignation, and determination to a character that the audience knows full well will probably met a bad, sad end some time after the show closes on its hopeful yet bittersweet note.

Indeed, there’s a sense that playwright Klein has written a considerably darker script than has been translated for Circle by director Davies and his actors. With a few small changes, you could really create a bummer of a naturalistic theater piece about the plight of society’s fringe-dwellers. For all of its performance charms, though, the show never plants a foot firmly in either comedy or drama territory. Like the homeless citizens that so many of us glance at, wonder about, and then pass by, Circle’s staging stimulates a curiosity about circumstance and personal destiny that fades almost as quickly as it came.

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