Marty Clear

Review: Sarasota's Urbanite Theatre presents 'Freak,' a powerful and unsettling drama

Two woman, a generation apart in age, lie on a bed. As one seems to be asleep, the other speaks, directly to the audience, about an impending sexual encounter. Then the other speaks, about another such adventure that lies ahead. The two women takes turns, each apparently unaware of each other.

So begins Anna Jordan's "Freak," which opens the second season at Sarasota's Urbanite Theatre.

The two women -- one woman and one girl, actually -- are Georgie, portrayed here by Urbanite co-artistic director Summer Dawn Wallace, and Leah, played by Ellie McCaw, a recent graduate of Booker High School's theater program. Georgie, her life in transition, has begun a career as a dancer in the kind of place that's euphemistically called a "gentlemen's club." She's looking for adventure and she deliberately, even enthusiastically, places herself in a treacherous situation. Leah, a teenager on the verge of her first sexual experiences, faces them with excitement, apprehension and an understanding that they will change who she is.

The play's about 90 minutes, presented without intermission, and the first hour or so consists entirely of alternating monologues, with Georgie and Leah seemingly unaware of each other. Jordan (who also wrote Urbanite's first-ever production, "Chicken Shop") gives us frank and startling dialogue, characters worth caring about and tension that builds cautiously but deliberately.

The playwright's words are intense; the play remains taut through its plot development even though the characters are merely relating stories, with little action taking place on stage. But it's the performances in the Urbanite staging that leave the indelible impression. Wallace, who seems physically transformed, is subdued but magnetic. And McCaw, who is still in her teens, is sensational. Her performance is assured and wise, with just the combination of touches of innocence and maturity, of fragility and toughness.

Director V. Craig Heidenreich has to get a lot of the credit for the way

the play and the performances unfold, and for the stark and uncomfortable atmosphere the production maintains until its ending. There's also a subtle -- almost unnoticeable -- sound design by Rew Tippin that intensifies the mood. Unfortunately, the resolution of the Jordan's play isn't as satisfying as it development.

Through most of the play we're never sure what the relationship between these two characters is, and when they finally converse near the play's end, the revelation is literally anti-climactic. The play's energy dissipates when it should explode, and it's not quite clear what Jordan wants us to take away from her characters' stories.

That's a major flaw, but not a fatal one. There's so much force and originality in this play, and so much strength in the performances, that its impact isn't muted by an ineffectual ending. It's not for people who look to theater for mere diversion, but it's on-target for audiences who seek out theater that's fresh and forceful.

Details: Through Nov. 15, Urbanite Theatre, 1487 Second St., Sarasota. Show times: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $24; students with ID $5. Information: 941-321-1397, urbanitetheatre.com.

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