BWW Review: Marc Pouhé Mesmerizes in CAGES

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CAGES by Leonard Manzella, is a prison drama receiving its second production here in Austin, by Southwest Theatre Productions, under the direction of Kat Sparks. The play is based on true stories about the treatment of mental patients in California's prison system, gathered by Manzella during his time running a psychodrama program.

The play begins when psychologist Dr. Tom Morri (Joe Bunner) returns to the prison he had been terminated from after one of his patients commits suicide. His new job is to rehabilitate prisoners, but he is met by more obstruction and obfuscation than assistance or support. The prisoners themselves put up seemingly insurmountable walls, but he also gets short shrift from Dr. Sally Stein (Regan Goins) and stereotypically evil prison guard, Officer Caine (Cliff Kammerdiener), who, as written, seems to only be missing a black handlebar mustache to twirl.

Eventually, Dr. Morri makes a break through with the most hostile inmate, Henderson (Marc Pouhé). Henderson has multiple personality disorder, with six different personalities, however we, as the audience, are only introduced to three of them. The other inmates all suffer from various illnesses that are touched upon only briefly.

The play's title comes from the six confinement cages the inmates are placed in. This produces some nice tension which Sparks makes good use of, however, the script calls for them to wander out of these cages to speak in pools of light that diffuses the nicely created tension time and time again. The script is written very cinematically, which poses problems in stage production. I understand that the piece is currently being developed for film, which is probably the better medium for the work. Additionally, although the cages were stunning, I don't understand why some of them had bars and mesh that obstructed some of the prisoners faces. This wasn't a problem for some of the cages, and it just seems like a poor choice from designer Tomas Salas' otherwise fine and striking design.

The script itself is best when it focuses on the inmates, who are the best written characters in the play. Other characters span a range from underwritten to stereotypical. On the night I attended, diction issues were a big problem for both Regan Goins and Cliff Kammerdiener. The problems were so pronounced that I was unable to understand fully a third of their lines. Ms. Goins overcame the problem in Act Two, however, Mr. Kammerdiener never did. I also have to say that it is pretty inexcusable for someone who is supposed to be a third generation prison guard to mangle the medication names as badly as they were here. Another major problem was Joe Bunner's volume. He was so soft that I was unable to even hear a lot of his lines. He didn't seem to pick up any energy until the crucial moment of the last act. While what he was attempting would be fine for film, it came off as tenuous and small in a stage setting.

The first act also seemed plagued by pacing problems and large pauses between lines mostly in scenes between the prison personnel. Where this production shines, however, is in the performances of the prisoners. They are a carjacking murderer, a bank robber, a pimp, a gang member, and a man suffering from multiple personality disorder. Deechen (Ronnie Williams), Fargo (Jay Windsor), Gordon (Sam Domino), Fuertes (Omar Cantu) and Henderson/Darryl/Roland (Marc Pouhé) all have the best written roles in the piece and these actors all make the most of them in uniformly fine performances. It is, however, Marc Pouhé, who walks away with the evening in a riveting and touching performance. His character spends a goodly portion of the beginning of the play bound and masked ala Hannibal Lecter. Pouhé's eyes, in these moments, are absolutely mesmerizing... I dare you to not look at him. He speaks volumes with just his eyes in a remarkable performance that alone is worth the price of admission.

Fabian Duran's sound design and Ryan Salinas' light design support the piece well. The program unfortunately did not include a credit for the costume design, which was well done.

In all, though this piece still needs some work, the prisoners make for a riveting examination of seldom explored characters that is, in and of itself, an interesting evening of theatre. There is a Q&A about prisons, and prison reform, with the playwright, Leonard Manzella, following each performance.

CAGES by Leonard Manzella

Running time: Approximately Two Hours including intermission

Advisory: Adult language and situations

CAGES, produced by Southwest Theatre Productions, at Santa Cruz Center for Culture's theatre (1805 E. 7th Street ).

Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m.

Santa Cruz Theatre, home of Aztlan Dance Company, is directly across from Huston-Tillotson University on the east side of I-35.

Tickets are $25 general admission, $22 seniors/students/group sales, plus service fees, available now via

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From This Author Frank Benge