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A CurtainUp Review
By Michael Bracken

"We need a national reputation. Legit, respectable. Just like Cincinnati known for its beer; we wanna be known for pitbulls."— Virgil
Donna Duplantier, Nathan Hinton, and Yvette Ganier. (Photo: Monica Simoes )
It's not every day, or in every play, that you hear talk about a Pitbull Summit. Visions of eminent pitbulls, cloistered in a chamber to discuss the pressing pitbull issues of the day, leap to mind. But alas, the Pitbull Summit featured in Pitbulls at the Rattlestick Theater, is nothing more than a dogfight, intended to put an unnamed Appalachian town on the map, much as beer, we're told, did for Cincinnati.

Then again, perhaps the summit in it isn't meant to be taken seriously. The Rattlestick offering, while hardly short on melodrama, has its share of humor as well. Sometimes it's hard to tell which is which.

Not surprisingly, pitbulls feature prominently in the narrative. First there's central character Mary's pup, stolen some time ago and killed in a fight she was forced to watch. This was somehow connected to someone's car being blown up, for which sheriff Virgil unofficially accuses Mary. No one was killed, but even if they were, the event would probably be put on equal footing with the pitbulls' deaths, another of which occurs before the play begins.

In the course of Pitbulls the mayor's dog, scheduled to fight in the summit, is kidnapped and killed, and Virgil throws Mary's son Dipper in jail for the crime. Blanks are filled in as the play draws to a close, none of which are surprising to the characters or the audience. Things end more or less happily for the good guys.

Playwright Keith Josef Adkins's is more skillful at characterization than plot. The personalities he creates are not always entirely believable, but they're all vivid.

Mary (Yvette Ganier), an earth mother if ever there was one, lives in a run-down trailer, eking out a living by making and selling wine. She spends most of her time barefoot in her yard, an open space littered with bottles, tubs, an old air conditioner and other paraphernalia. (Andrew Boyce is responsible for the very convincing trailer yard as well as the less effective, slightly garish, painted trees that indicate the forest.)

Ganier synthesizes Mary's blend of sensuality and rebellion, an attractive combination. Virgil, who repeatedly antagonizes her, tells her son Dipper she was once "the tastiest piece of God this side of God." Mary says Virgil changed for the worse after his time in the marines and blames him for her puppy's death.

Dipper, played by Maurice Williams, is the play's most fully realized character, both in the writing and the playing. While some would call him simple, he's actually quite complex. In his early twenties, he acts like he's fifteen, a poster child for arrested development. Virgil taunts and threatens him even more ferociously than he does Dipper's mother. Then he turns on a dime and gives Dipper a beer.

With his strapping body and adolescent mien, Williams is perfect in the role. He brings together all the aspects of Dipper's state in life: resentment of and need for the mother who smothers him, the desire to be a man when in so many ways he's still a boy, and the confusion of puberty come late.

Other characters are interesting but somewhat overblown. Billy Eugene Jones portrays Virgil with demonic intensity, but his mood swings are confusing. Is he toying with his victims or does he have a genuine soft spot? Nathan Hinton is Wayne, a jovial, comic preacher wannabe who's having an affair with Mary.

Donna DuPlantier is Rhonda, Wayne's shrill, Jesus-spouting, harpy of a wife, who wears a gas mask when she gets a "terrorist feeling." Her portrayal is a caricature, but it's done well enough that we're willing to go along for the ride. We just can't take her seriously. Which is one of the things that makes you wonder about the play as a whole. The very notion of a Pitbull Summit raises questions. Is it real or is it a joke? Most probably it's a combination of the two that doesn't jell. The story's not compelling and the laughs not consistent.

Director Leah C. Gardiner, aided by Eric Southern's skillful lighting, makes the most of the Rattlestick space. The action flows nicely for what it is, but the overall enterprise comes up short.

Pitbulls by Keith Josef Adkins
Directed by Leah C. Gardiner
Cast: Donna DuPlantier (Rhonda), Yvette Ganier (Mary), Nathan Hinton (Wayne), Billy Eugene Jones (Virgil), and Maurice Williams (Dipper)
Set Design: Andrew Boyce
Costume Design: Dede Ayite
Lighting Design: Eric Southern
Sound Design: Bart Fasbender
Properties Designer: Zachary Serafin
Fight Director: David Anzuelo
Production Manager: Jeremy Duncan Pape
Production Stage Manager: Theresa Flanagan
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place,, 866.811.4111
From 11/06/14; opening 11/20/14; closing 12/20/14
Reviewed by Michael Bracken based on November 15, 2014 performance
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