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Stage Review: 'Billy B' a raw work of art in progress

Thursday, March 28, 2002

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

We call ourselves "arts critics," but more often we actually critique the craft of polishing finished products for commercial appeal. If art is an intellectual action verb -- a flicker that sparks in the mind of its creator -- the best critics can do is offer educated personal opinions on the degree of craftsmanship applied in presenting the idea to the public. Rarely do critics get to stand closer to the flame.

"The Saving of
Billy B"

WHERE: Cloven Hoof Productions at Penn Avenue Theatre, 4809 Penn Ave., Garfield

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; through April 6

TICKETS: $12 or $15; 412-761-3947


The conundrum is evident. By the time a work is published, displayed or performed for a paying crowd, the initial artistic element has already been honed, polished and cultivated to conform to contemporary commercial demands. Special forums -- writers' workshops, studio open houses, songwriter open stages -- offer glimpses of something nearer to the action of art, but without those elements of refinement that critics generally critique.

"The Saving of Billy B" is about as close to the flame as critics and crowds can get. It's a new play being workshopped by a new company. By definition, it's not done yet. By professional theater standards, it needs work. By all rights, however, it's a playwright articulating an idea, actors inventing new characters, a director inventing a new work of theater -- a rare chance to witness the crackling fire of an intellectual act of art.

Inspired by entries on a CNN.com gay issues message board, "The Saving of Billy B" is a fictional story of an adolescent boy sent by his parents to a church camp to reorient his sexual identity. After his release, he commits suicide. The courtroom drama follows a gay Southern lawyer suing an evangelical empire for fraud on behalf of the dead boy's devoutly Christian parents.

Heavy stuff. Los Angeles playwright Michael Sutton explores all of the logical angles and provides an unusually fair give-and-take on a controversial social issue. Most of his characters seem real and three-dimensional. Still, Sutton doesn't seem to be sure if he's written a script or a screenplay. A paring of dialogue, enhanced use of flashback, a sharper plot twist and more succinct ending would help tailor it for the stage.

Several actors radiate pure artistic energy. Robert S. Kleinedler gives his prosecuting attorney a keen legal bearing and warm sensitivity. Leah Klocko turns her limited role as the grieving mother into a powerful showcase for her intensity and ability to live her character. Erin Sapienza and Brian Hinkle are explosive in vital roles that should be expanded, and Jim Weldon is perfectly cast as the astute yet defensive televangelist.

Kudos to first-time director-producer Joe Pauley, an actor who loved Sutton's script so much that he just made it happen. The devil is always in the details, and although Pauley got most of the big things right, a lot of little adjustments could be made. Courtroom witnesses perform with their backs to the crowd, and three characters -- the judge, the boy's father and the lawyer's lover -- often seem shallow and stilted.

That's what it's like this near to the flame -- imperfect, in flux, in the process of creation. Pauley's show is an invitation to feel the combustion of a new act of art.

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