By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer
It's impossible not to be charmed by the Performance Gallery, the loosey-goosey collective of theater artists who operate on no particular schedule at the Columbia Performance Center (aka the purple church) on Eastern Avenue.
At the very beginning of the new Dead Lines, the announcement about turning off cell phones and pagers and not making those irritating noises while unwrapping candy comes on video and stars director Regina Pugh, doing a gleefully cheesy ghost routine.
She waves around in a sheet with eyes holes cut in and "Wooooo! Wooooo!" sounds underscore dire warnings. It plays on a beat-up portable TV, part of the mom's attic-inspired set for a collection of tales about the dead and living helping each other.
This troupe is spunky, and the closest thing to locally produced performance art that Cincinnati has.
Sometimes the Performance Gallery is downright wonderful, as in its adaptation of Jean Genet's The Maids last season. It's rarely a total write-off.
Dead Lines is somewhere in the middle. Six company members have contributed short episodes on the topic of spooky intercourse between this life and the next, and Pugh has woven most of them together (the final entry is a stand alone) into a theater piece.
Most of the writing needs re-writing, but committed performances from some of the most reliable performers on the small theater scene - Elizabeth Harris, Taren Frazier, Sarah Mann, Aretta Baumgartner - shore up the material.
Brian Andrews-Griffin performs his own monologue which elaborates into a shaggy dog tale about a scientist, a corpse, the narrator's brother the elf, Santa and Rudolph (the reindeer) at the North Pole. His performance is so amiable and energetic that he powers his way through the overlong telling.
The company has fun picking through the stage's collection of stuff (old books, plastic martini glasses, a worse-for-wear globe, a child's colorful ten-pin game) to use found objects to re-tell an old Polish folk tale (a man is given the power to transform into creatures of the woodland, wins a princess and triumphs over death) with Baumgartner directing the puppetry.
The actors have clearly worked up the dialogue out of improv, settling on a sort of throwaway hipness that isn't as clever as they think.
Performance Gallery isn't afraid to have an idea and run with it, a virtue so rare that it should be nurtured and encourages even on those occasions when the process is more successful than the outcome.
True theater fans will find it worthwhile to go along on their ride.
Dead Lines, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Columbia Performance Center, 3900 Eastern Ave., Columbia Tusculum. Tickets $10. (513) 333-8482.
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