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BWW Reviews: Playwright Contrivance Upstages Focus on 'FATE' at Mobtown

I was intrigued by the title of Jessica McHugh’s play Fools Call It Fate, being given its first production by the Mobtown Players.  I anticipated that the play might incorporate some interesting speculations on causation, on how events come to be, and the patterns we perceive in them.  I did indeed encounter speculation, but unfortunately it is of only limited interest.

The play starts with a structure that almost guarantees this inconsequentiality.  It follows six characters whose lives are cleverly intertwined in manners found only in stories, not in nature.  To wit, unbeknownst to each other, each of them knows and interacts with each other of them.  Three of them behave quite badly, and by one means or another they are punished.  This is so self-consciously contrived that it cannot serve as the subject of speculations about causation; everything happens because the author has willed it, not because the characters made it happen, because God made it happen, or because of some dynamic in the collective.  For comparison, consider Tolstoy’s meditations on the same theme in War and Peace; there he had a well-documented historical event to work with, the Russian Napoleonic wars.  It was a legitimate question how such wars came about, and Tolstoy was working with evidence he had not created.  Not so Ms. McHugh.

Instead of making it possible for the audience to set this subject aside, Ms. McHugh makes it impossible to avoid, by salting through the play, and in particular at the beginning and end, three masked characters who seem at certain points to be devils welcoming the evildoers to hell, and at other times the Three Fates.  They speak of how the events depicted came about in guarded, mystical, and at times poetic fashion – fine in another kind of play, but not in a play with such a contrived and literal-minded plot.  The remaining, representational, parts of the play are set in a more-or-less recognizable contemporary Baltimore.

Most of the fun in the play comes from the less fantastical action: a set-piece encounter in a singles bar, dad-chat on the sidelines at a children’s soccer game, municipal corruption in a code-enforcement office.  McHugh shows real talent in depicting such moments, though cliché does abound.  That said, the Yeatsian business with masks and poetic talk also carries some frisson; my quarrel with it is simply that it is only partly related to the main action, similar to the Don Juan in Hell act in Shaw’s Man and Superman.  It ends up so strikingly superfluous – not to mention lengthening – to the whole that if it were up to me, I’d simply junk it.

None of this is the fault of the cast, of course.  The standouts are Steve Shriner, as Richard, the very pattern of unapologetic jerkiness as government official, father, husband, and lover, and the redoubtable Melissa O’Brien (who seems to be everywhere doing everything in Baltimore’s performing arts scene) as Sophie, a young woman too insightful not to recognize how dead-ended her relationships are, but not able to avoid slipping repeatedly back into self-deception and irresolution.  She also is the best thing about the Yeatsian sequences; behind a mask she is an entirely different character, a sort of sinister sprite.  Rachel Lee Rash, Will Carson, Deb Carson, and Brian Kraszewski round out the cast, all doing serviceable work.  Director Marc C. Franceschini also makes the most of the assignment.

 Playwright McHugh is apparently a prolific practitioner of what she calls speculative fiction.  I have not had the opportunity to sample her work in that genre, but I suspect that the subgenres within which she reportedly writes (e.g. horror and alternative history) are more conducive to her talents.  Evoking made-up worlds does not require the same skill set as depicting a realistic scene.  Writing for the stage is also very much its own discipline.  For a freshman effort this is not bad, but as a playwright McHugh has some things yet to learn.

Fools Call It Fate, by Jessica McHugh, directed by Marc C. Fanceschini, through August 6 at Mobtown Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, Suite 114, Baltimore, MD  21211.  Tickets $15 at  Details at  Smoking, violence, sexual situations, language.

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