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Fear Itself

Any terrorist types here tonight? What about you grandma? You hate this country?

Jim Helein and Renee Calarco
J. Helein and R. Calarco
Charter Theatre returns to its original home at the National Conservatory for Dramatic Arts in Georgetown to mount Mario Baldessari's social satire Fear Itself. If you've wondered about the insanity of not being able to pack toothpaste in an airline carry-on or wondered about having your briefcase searched by a rent-a-cop at the building your dentist's office is located — this show is for you.

As his previous plays (also produced at Charter) have shown, Baldessari's comedic writing skill is quite sharp and his satire is on the mark. In Sacred Cows he and co-writer Jim Helein scoured religion and its inconsistencies, while in Wonders Never Cease (co-written with Helein and Barry Wood), Baldessari showed us the humorous yet touching side of x-ray glasses and childhood naiveté.Now writing solo, he's lampooning our fear-based society and those who parlay fear into marketing opportunities or political power gains -— as well as those who mindlessly buy into the fear tactics like sheep being sent to a slaughter house. Thus we get the Channel Nine News team of Rockie Cartell and Denzell Graks asking "What's in the drinking water that could be killing your child?" Or Miss Lady, the safety expert of a children's television program, advising "You see children, even music can kill you."

More a series of comedy sketches than an actual play (a fact Baldessari points out), this quick ninety minute production is written quite tightly. Each skit has several funny lines and garners laughs and applause. It's only at the sixty-minute mark that there is a momentary lag, but then Fear Itself picks back up and keeps your attention firmly on the small blackbox stage.

Director Keith Bridges has his two-member cast well-timed and evenly paced. With a makeshift set and his two actors constantly changing costumes, Mr. Bridges keeps Mr. Helein and Ms. Calarco moving fast and making the most of their expressions, intonation and physical performances.

Jim Helein shines whether he is a bumbling Calamita Airline executive explaining the cause of a "permanent delay" (think crash), as Hal Cloudy the Weather Channel's "pseudo" hurricane expert, or as Bob the candy stealing ghost who haunts the National Conservatory of the Arts. The build up to his macho male breakdown as a boyfriend who realizes how afraid he is to show his emotions is wonderful. His facial expressions and delivery get a laugh at every step which makes him a bright spot in any Charter show he appears in.

Renee Calarco stands out as Cecily Wisp (pronounced wisssssss-pah) the tour guide for Georgetown's Seated Ghost Tours where no walking is allowed due to insurance liabilities. And as Georgetown librarian, Veronica Ramsport, who authoritatively assures us "Reading can be fun, in a nineteenth century kind of way," she opens up a library-approved title designed to protect the impressionability of child minds -- Hansel and Gretel. A story, Mr. Baldessari pointedly shows to be a starting point for today's violence filled video games and TV programs.

This is a show to which we can all relate. While it still could use some fine tuning, its use of current news, local sites and eccentric people makes it a possible long-running show for a company looking to develop a late night, cult hit. And for Washingtonians who saw the inanity of our political leaders suggesting we should plastic wrap a "safe room" in our homes " just in case we had a chemical attack" — it's the show they've been waiting for.

Fear Itself
written by Mario Baldessari
Directed by Keith Bridges
with Renee Calarco and Jim Helein
Running Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission
A production of Charter Theatre
The National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, Wisconsin Avenue and Volta Street NW
Telephone: 202-333-7009
FRI - SAT @8; $20
Opening 01/05/07, closing 01/27/07
Reviewed by Rich See based on 01/05/07 performance
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