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Our Town - August 22, 1996


Theatre Review

"Freiheit Makes a Stand" by Barry Rowell. Produced by Peculiar Works Project, at the Vineyard Theatre, 309 E. 26th St., 683-9772.

America's perpetrators of cataclysmic violence have invariably been labled as loners, but there's one place they've always found a comfortable home -- American entertainment. Billy the Kid has been immortalized in ballet, Bonnie and Clyde are the heroes of a classic movie, and presidential assassins have recieved the ultimate tribute from the American theater: musicalization by Stephen Sondheim. So it's not surprise that outlaws with political agendas -- the Randy Weavers of Ruby Ridge, the bombers of Oklahoma City and the dissaffected of Waco -- are now the subjects of drama.

If the portraits of these bloody protagonists are dubious, they at least have the virtue of starting their own dramas; they do things. In "Freiheit Makes a Stand," writer and director Barry Rowell creates a hero who does nothing. And that's a big problem. Billy Freiheit (Richard Sheinmel) is holed up in a cabin awaiting the storming of his home by the FBI. Two things keep him company, his copy of "Coriolanus" and his mother (Nomi Tichman), a large woman of large hates. She tells us of an amendment that was sneakily discarded from our Constitution -- one that made it illegal for lawyers to hold office. She inveighs heavily against other official misdeeds and is obviously a mighty influence on her son. But so is "Coriolanus." It has certainly inspired author Rowell, as Billy's mother announces that she would not mind her son's death as long as he dies gloriously. Bill himself seems to have caught the fever of Shakespeare's bloody hero, but only by pummeling a large stuffed armor-covered dummy.

Another kind of fever infects the FBI agents waiting for the order to storm Billy's cabin. Their leader, Agent Aufidius (Ernest Abuba), calls it "Weaver Fever." It's the virus of indecision, the reluc-tance to make a bad situation worse like at Weaver Farm, the fear that action now will be examined and condemned later if lives are lost. So Aufidius' agents dash behind and under rocks and engage in speculations and make small gestures of defiance against their bosses, like flirting and drinking and quoting Shakespeare -- symptoms of wating for the kill.

Rowell doesnt flinch from reminding us of the accouterments of Billy's supposed idealism. As Billy senses death approaching, he rattles off a litany of generalized hate that includes all races and beliefs. This is disturbing in a way that Rowell probably doesn't intend -- it's the only moment when the play catches fire. For it is the only time that Billy does something. Rowell heightens the drama and makes a cogent point when Aufidius isn't shocked or disturbed; Billy's beliefs are beside the point. For him Billy is only a target. Aufidius just laughs.

Well, at least he's having a good time. Accompanied by the lachrymose music by David Lynch, Billy Freiheit's story is a dirge. Messily written and acted, only once does it deal with the question on our minds. Aufidius asks it of Billy, but it's really for the playwright: "What do you think you're doing?" -- Jack Temchin