Saturday, September 18, 2004

Ears on a Beatle (Dobama)

Dobama's 'EARS ON A BEATLE' fascinating glimpse at history

Jon Wiener, a professor of History at the University of California, spent 14
years fighting to gain access to the FBI's secret files on John Lennon. These are the files that inspired Mark St. Germain to write the play ‘EARS ON A BEATLE,’ now on stage at Dobama Theatre.

First produced in 2003 as part of the Berkshire Festival, it received its Off-Broadway premiere in March of this year. Ironically, it stared Dan Lauria of TV’s “The Wonder Years” fame who is presently appearing at The Cleveland Play House in “LEADING LADIES.”

The play is a dark comedy that follows two surveillance agents assigned to monitor the personal, professional and political activities of former Beatle, band member and anti war activist John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono during the 1970s.

Though not truly a docudrama, as St. Germain plays somewhat loosely with facts and adds devices to develop his plot, it encourages much thought About the role of government intrusion into our lives, and how facts can be manipulated. It inspires thoughts about assassinations, plots and playing with the truth

The story centers on two agents, Howard Ballantine (Joel Hammer) a disillusioned cynic and Daniel McClure (Andrew Tarr) an eager neophyte who is the son of a Viet Nam army officer. The author has fashioned his two protagonists as a couple of ordinary guys dealing with relationship troubles and other everyday concerns. As they proceed with their job of watching, documenting, and reporting on the life of someone else, one asks the other whether he ever feels that he's not really living his own life. Often they are not, but are instead bystanders to history, unable to effect change even when they want to do so. This is evidenced when, as McClure becomes disillusioned and asks, “What is my job? Just digging deeper and deeper into people until I find the worst in them?

Though the script is too formulaic, St. Germain has some sharp observations on the conspiracy theories and the failure of idealism. He does a nice job of blending the melodramatic with the dramatic and with the humorous, and develops characters that give the play’s director, Charles Kartali, a chance to use his creativity and the actors’ talents to develop interesting characters.

‘EARS ON A BEATLE’ is not a docudrama; rather, St. Germain focuses on the questions that plague the national imagination in relation to the assassinations of world leaders and celebrities from Kennedy to Lennon. It asks where you draw the line between coincidence and conspiracy. The playwright suggests that even the characters may not know -- and, if they do, they're not telling each other.

Director Kartali has a grasp on the meaning of the script and helps develop the ideas. His staging, however, becomes a little chaotic by overuse of set changes. As much audience time is spent watching two very hard working stage hands move set pieces as participating in listening to lines. The stage hands deserved a curtain call as much as the actors.

Richard Ingraham has done a wonderful job of patching together the complicated sound design which blends together music, voice-overs, and segments from historical speeches and media performances.

Joel Hammer is excellent as Ballantine. He is consistent in his characterization. His cynicism, his walking the fine line between blind political loyalty and realistic frustration is finely developed. Andrew Tarr, who adds a nice naivety to his role, is acceptable as McClure, but does not have the acting depth to make the role totally believable. His characterization often waivers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Dobama’s ‘EARS ON A BEATLE’ is well worth seeing. As evidenced by the reactions of the opening night audience, the intermissionless play holds the audience's interest due to its compelling subject matter -- which includes some surprising revelations -- and a solid performance from Joel Hammer.