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“VALPARAISO” | Review by Robert W. McDowell

DON DeLILLO’S “VALPARAISO” SAVAGELY SATIRIZES AMERICA’S CULTURE OF INSTANT CELEBRITY VIA 15 MINUTES OF FAME ON TABLOID TV

New York City novelist and playwright Don DeLillo’s 1999 play, VALPARAISO, is savage satire of the American tabloid television, which bestows instant celebrity on all manner of screw-ups. The case in point in the current Free Association Theatre Ensemble production of VALPARAISO is hapless business traveler Michael Majeski (John Paul Middlesworth), who leaves his home in Detroit, MI, to board Air Reliance Flight 1536 for a routine short hop to Valparaiso, IN, and instead ends up — 12 hours and 6,000 miles away — in Valparaiso, Chile. The news media feeding frenzy is instantaneous and Majeski and his wife, Livia (Julie-Kate Cooper), a physical therapist in a nursing home and an unpublished poet, become overnight celebrities, the constant questioning opens up fissures in their once rock-solid marriage.

FATE founder and artistic director Julya M. Mirro has an ambitious plan to plunk down Triangle audiences in the middle of the action of VALPARAISO by selling them First Class and Coach tickets, and including a brief interlude for food and beverage service — carried out by uniformed flight attendants (played perkier-than-thou by Noelle Barnard as Trixi and Nancy Jones as Tammi) — in the middle of this approximately one hour and 45 minute one-act play. The plan is ingenious, but the execution falters in the cramped confines of Common Ground Theatre, as it is reconfigured to seat two classes of airline passengers to witness a confusing series of encounters on a postage-stamp-sized stage.

John Paul Middlesworth gives a personable performance as accidental world traveler Michael Majeski, who becomes increasingly turned off by the constant barrage of questions from the pack of media jackals (Nicola Lefler as Empatience, Ken Wolpert as Crewdny, Jeff Bergman as Philmguy, Miranda Day as Mistrissy, and Oliver Vest as Howler) that invade his and his wife’s privacy. But it is an ill-fated live television appearance on the tabloid TV show hosted by the piranha-like interviewer Delfina (Lisa Levin) and her queenie Brit assistant Teddy (Kevin Roberge) that precipitates Michael Majeski’s downward spiral into depression and worse.

Although Middlesworth creates a fully three-dimensional character, the others in the cast paint their characters with just a few broad strokes. None of the supporting cast is particularly memorable, and this idea fizzles out long before a shock ending turns sporadic laughter into a sense of bewilderment so deep that last Friday night’s performance ended not with polite applause but with silence as many in the audience eagerly deplaned.

SECOND OPINION: June 24th Raleigh, NC NEWS & OBSERVER review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/06/24/547799/valparaiso-is-striking-but-lacking.html; and June 23rd Durham, NC INDEPENDENT WEEKLY review by Zach Smith (who awarded the show 2.5 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/fates-production-of-don-delillos-valparaiso/Content?oid=1496108.

Free Association Theatre Ensemble presents VALPARAISO at 8 p.m. June 24-26, 2 p.m. June 27, and 8 p.m. July 1-3 at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina 27705.

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