Coho Theatre, 2257 NW Raleigh, 220-2646, Thurs-Fri 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, $16-$18
Child of Pleasure--about the 17th-Century philosopher-courtesan Ninon L'Enclos (played by Emily Sahler Beleele)--is an exercise in excessively esoteric entertainment saved from the pretentious doldrums by the skill of its creator. William S. Gregory is a witty chap with a knack for clever insults. "Good night, you menace to the masculine" is one example of the Wilde-esque barbs traded by the foppish characters who frequent the L'Enclose estate. Such dialogue lifts every scene and is consistent enough to establish Gregory officially as one of Portland's smartest playwrights.
Coho's production of Pleasure is spot-on, loaded with understated performances and back-dropped by an equally subtle set, adorned with tapestries, designed by Fredrick Zal. Director Angie Lawless knows that physical restraint was at the core of Western-European 17th-Century social interaction amongst the intellectual elite, and wisely lets the language lead the charge.
For all its attributes, however, Pleasure still exudes a sense of lost opportunity. L'Enclos was a remarkable woman: rebellious of the Catholic Church at a time when it was most oppressive, and a great practitioner of secular pleasures (read: gettin' it on). Gregory is obviously aware of those traits, and yet fails to endow his protagonist with any of them. Part of the problem lies with Beleele, who plays L'Enclose with appropriate intelligence, grace, and strength, but without the raw sexuality and lust for life that one would expect from such an indulgent personality.
Gregory also gets so wrapped up with his colorful cast, he forgets about L'Enclos. All the supporting characters are intriguing, but the main story line deals with L'Enclos' father, Henri L'Enclos (Curt Hanson), returning to his daughter's side after having abandoned her years earlier. Gregory works hard to make Henri likable so that Ninon's eventual forgiveness of him seems plausible. He succeeds nicely, developing Mr. L'Enclos so well and making him so likable, Ninon becomes far less interesting in comparison, particularly when she is hypocritically chastising her father for his sexual deviance. Why Gregory chose to make this real-life flamboyant protagonist so prudish is a mystery, but what's clear is that he should have called his play Father of the Child of Pleasure to avoid false advertising. JUSTIN SANDERS
Toad City Productions at Itisness, 3016 NE Killingsworth, 736-1027, Fri-Sat 8 pm, $8-$12
The other day a middle school kid calling himself Trapper John rang my doorbell, and asked if I could donate some money to his school's outdoor education program. He said they needed something like $487,000 to keep curriculums intact. I made him listen to me rant about how crappy it was he had to go door to door so he and his friends could go camping for a week. From what I understand, Portland school kids are doing this all over town, combing the streets for spare change. What's next? Rifling through garbage cans and recycling bins for returnables?
The bleak state of affairs has galvanized Adrienne Flagg, teacher and artistic director of Toad City Productions, to make a theatrical production out of it. The Edjumuhcation Follies is a collection of skits and improv satirizing the mess in which Portland public schools have landed. Each skit takes one shameful and/or excessively pointless aspect of the school system (kids are selling acne medicine to buy textbooks; third graders spend six weeks learning how to fill out ovals for standardized tests; etc.) and plays it out to the most absurd conclusion possible. Flagg's favorite topics are the difficulties of teaching within a system that stifles with bureaucratic administration and huge budget deficits. My favorite skit: a bunch of 17-year-old girls realize the tool belt-adorned stripper they've hired for their party is really their English teacher. "All the other part-time jobs were taken, girls! Someone has to pay for your books!"
As a rule, I'm wary of comedy skits, especially improv (audience participation makes me nervous). And for some reason, Flagg broke up the mostly entertaining education slams with unscripted, participatory improv that didn't relate to the point and bogged the show down. Improv has a way of separating those who have a talent for it and those that do not, and flat jokes can really get you down. But the quality and poignancy of the skits gains momentum after intermission, and by the bows you're ready to both forgive discrepancies of scripting and cut Trapper John a check to learn how to start a fire with three matches. ANNA SIMON