"Rust" never sleeps

The Magic's annual Hot House fest yields a discovery
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Between Kirsten Greenidge's rumbling and ambitious Rust and Chantal Bilodeau's titilutf8g if more staid Pleasure and Pain, a metatheme is already emerging from the Magic Theatre's annual three-play Hot House festival. Both Greenidge and Bilodeau merge a contemporary identity-focused story line and a fractured mise-en-scène to explore the porous border between mundane reality and individual and collective fictions.

Rust centers on a troubled patch in the high-flying career of football star Randall Mifflin (Mikaal Sulaiman). The Mighty Miff, to his fans, has temporarily retired for vague reasons having to do with the corruption of the game's ideals, setting off a controversy embodied by two comically artificial-looking TV sportscasters (Eric Fraisher Hayes and Lance Gardner) complete with navy blue blazers, puffy microphones, plastic hairdos, and even banks of stadium floodlights strapped to their backs. Miff, meanwhile, stays home in edgy seclusion playing video games and collecting antique mammy-shaped cookie jars (and other fixtures of a commercial culture once saturated with antebellum black caricatures). To the growing concern of his wife (April Matthis) and friends (Nicole C. Julien and Donald Lett), it becomes clear Randall is being haunted over the phone by the ghosts of product icons Aunt Jemima, here known as Ella Mae Walker (Cathleen Riddley), and Uncle Ben, or Mr. Peale (L. Peter Callender), who plead with him to deliver the race.

A subplot features a yuppie brother (Gardner) and sister (Matthis) in the process of selling their late parents' old house. Out of one wall steps a life-size version of Mary-Mary-Anne (Julien), a pickaninny the brother instantly recognizes from childhood as Farina, the cereal icon, one of many racist commercial images their mother bitterly pasted behind the wallpaper in a kind of symbolic burial. Mary-Mary-Anne leads the siblings on a hunt for the cookie jar now in Randall's possession, as the two plot strands come together — along with an eerie set of lantern-wielding Gold Dust Washing Powder twins, Omas (Lett) and Snipe (Hayes) — in an antique shop operated by a drunken dealer named Gin George (Callender).

Setting these grotesque caricatures in motion among flesh-and-blood moderns is just one of the ways Greenidge's uneven but vital, imaginative, and ambitious comedy theatrically realizes the uneasy blending of stereotypes and real life. It does so in a way particularly reminiscent of Suzan-Lori Parks's work. As the enduring force of blackface caricature, and the white supremacist ideology behind it, threads its way into the present day, it becomes clear that the subtle negotiations and compromises attendant on personal and collective identity in 21st-century American culture stand in need of a little schooling, if not an exorcism.

The protagonist in Bilodeau's Pleasure and Pain has her own problem with private demons bearing down on her social world. Peggy (Jennifer Clare) is an attractive, perky, semiawkward, almost unbelievably sheltered 21st-century young woman groping toward a more or less '50s-style sexual awakening with an overactive fantasy life she half worries, half hopes will leave her "out of control." Needless to say, she gets her ambivalent wish. Her daydreams — ruled by a strapping dominator (Andrew Utter) dressed in casual S-M gear — soon spill out into her workaday world, which is split between secretarial duties alongside former babysitter and comically unguarded confidant Ruth (a sharp and amusing Catherine Smitko) and a prematurely settled home life with her schluby fiancé (Max Moore).

Not exactly new territory. Pleasure and Pain lacks anything like the imagination — let alone psychological or social import — of Luis Buñuel's Belle du Jour or even a film by Catherine Breillat.

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