Review: Kartasi

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Karasi Cast Photo

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Thursday, March 13, 2003

Play has depth; characters don't
by Robert Hannon

..... Playwright and director Thomas Riccio calls his new theater piece, "Kartasi," a "cyber ritual."

..... That's about right. Although the Theatre UAF production displays traditional dramatic devices such as dialogue, conflict and a hero, all these elements are reduced to their essentials and placed in the conceptual frame- work of a video game.

..... It's hard to say precisely what the game's story is though. The characters' speech is a mish-mash of English, German, Latin and who knows what-the actors mix a good deal of grunting, chortling and howling into the multi-lingual patois.

..... But it's clear from the get-go that the hero Kartasi's idea of appropriate behavior and sense of dress come from the "Conan the Barbarian" school of etiquette. No sooner does he appear on the Salisbury Theatre stage with his nubile, scantily clad consort Virgo than they're required to fight with club, sword or fist with a half dozen or more outlandish characters. Even so, he loses Vir- go to a six-eyed creature called Slime pretty early into the piece. For the first half of the play he has two major tasks on his to-do list: Survive and find Virgo.

..... Not that he lacks for female attention. Kali, a Xena-like woman, champions his cause and expresses her own romantic interests in the strapping warrior.

..... If all this sounds silly, remember that some of the biggest grossing motion pictures in recent years feature characters that can climb walls and shoot webs from their wrists or are short, furry-footed and travel with dwarves and elves. Riccio is exploiting and exploring our culture's obvious needs for myth and the fantastic. And while the production lacks the budget of Hollywood blockbusters and Tolkien's profound linguistic and narrative power, it still manages to raise intriguing questions and keep the audience's attention.

..... Riccio does this, in part, by making Kartasi interactive. The audience votes at various points on the hero's success or decides where the story will lead.

..... This interactivity points to the video game conceit. But Riccio has ambitiously stuffed the production with a host of other technical devices toward the same end. He has projected on a screen, placed upstage center, computer elements such as character profiles, digital landscapes and electronic patterns. And he's combined these "cyber" elements with lurid lighting, synthesized music and sound effects, creating a complex production.

..... More traditional theatrical elements work as well or better. The set is nicely neutral consisting of large black boxes or platforms placed on either side of the stage. This creates a central avenue leading the eye to the rear screen and gives the fight sequences plenty of interesting possibilities Riccio effectively exploits. And the black sets off the costumes in all their campy, comic-book splendor.

..... Alas for the performers, ritual doesn't require acting; it looks to archetypal figures to suggest primal energies. This is where the play's concept undermines the production. All the leads, including Jonathan Ward as Kartasi, Abrah Fawvor as Virgo and Rose Jensen as Kali, do a fine job as far as they can. But they essentially play types, not characters. Better off are the performers like Mike Karoly as Putrification Garcia who don't have to make their types conform to the stolid warrior image. Karoly, with his wizard's cap and expansive robes, physically and vocally moves around like some deranged kabuki character. And even Briana Doering, as small as her part is, manages to make a greater impression because her speech and needs are comparatively simple and direct.

..... Still, Riccio manages to touch on some profound truths in his work, not least that we are all like characters locked in a software program we did riot create. Like Kartasi, with strength, luck and the help of our betters we may hope to overcome this genetic and social programming and take command of the game in which we find ourselves. "Kartasi" continues Friday and Saturday nights.

Robert Hannon is Public Affairs director at KUAC. He's been involved in local theater for 20 years.

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