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‘Rust Belt Grotesque’ isn’t pretty, but it has moments of brilliance

The American Repertory Theater’s premiere of its last show of the season, “Rust Belt Grotesque,” bid a bittersweet farewell to its home at ART in the Box.

After May 23, ART’s audiences will no longer huddle in the basement at the Church of the Ascension, which will soon be converted into senior housing. Still, the show will go on, as ART plans to continue with its 2015-16 season at another venue, according to ART executive director Matthew LaChiusa.

Call the new housing project a sign of progress for the North Street neighborhood, but perhaps it’s more apt to call it yet another tale of abandonment in Buffalo: a shrinking church whose parishioners have gone elsewhere and a theater community left to search for a new home.

It’s not a pretty narrative, but neither are most of the acts featured in Rust Belt Grotesque. The showcase of four one-act plays features four murders, three rapes and the pervasive theme of abandonment that plagues the Rust Belt.

Inside the intimate theater, the audience has no escape from ear-splitting shrieks or thud of a nine-iron over a corpse. The four plays are loosely tied together by a decaying set and a randy narrator, played by Sadie Clark. Strapped in a crimson corset, the narrator could be a Victorian vampire or an Allentown artist peddling her ghost stories. Clark does an admirable job strutting between acts and twisting a spidery finger at the audience, but her youth belies a character that might have been better suited for a more veteran actor.

The first of four gruesome plays, “Most of America’s Water Comes Through Rust Belt Eyes,” opens with the corpse.

Written by Justin Karcher, the act strives for a modern Macbeth couple dynamic between Megan Kemple and Michael Seitz. While Karcher may hit too hard on the theme of abandonment, there are moments of brilliance in his prose that will tug on the heartstrings of any Buffalonian.

The most disturbing of the four acts comes with the second, “Killing Simone.” Writer Mark C. Lloyd took a dramatic turn from his usual comedies to pen a story based on Winston Moseley, who in 1964 stabbed Kitty Genovese and was later sent to Attica Correctional Facility.

Lloyd’s telling takes the murder a step further, tacking on a rape and hostage situation to Winston’s crimes. The play stands out as the most uncomfortable and unseemly in the show, but Priscilla Young Anker gets a delicious role as the victim turned ghost who has come to torture Winston, played by Mike Leszcynski.

Even “Rust Belt Grotesque’s” third act, which emerges at first as a bit of comic relief, descends into another dirty tale. “Mr. Pussy,” written by LaChiusa, is a thrilling monologue told with deft acting by Michael Starzynski.

As a vaudeville star climbing his way to the top in 19th century Buffalo, Starzynski delivers a spread of impressions. With a slight narrowing of his eyes, he manipulates the spotlight so he can at once seem a Swedish seaman or an Italian immigrant.

Like all good things, “Mr. Pussy” seems to end too soon and I would have been content to see a protracted play from that one act. In his manic monologue, Starzynski not only packs a dozen characters but gets the best character arc of any of the “Grotesque” players.

The show ends with James Marzo’s slapstick comedy, “No One Will Know,” which could have the alternative title, “The Three Stooges Commit a Murder.” Based on the true story of the Thayer brothers’ 1824 killing of John Love, the act provides a nearly light note for the end of “Grotesque.”

David Mitchell does well as the grizzled rube who leads his band of idiots while Sean Marciniak, whose young enthusiasm may still be overzealous, delivers whimpers like Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion. While the act elicited chuckles from the audience, there were no all-out barrel laughs. Actor Aaron Krygier stood out playing the straight man Sheriff Torrey, who gets some of the drier lines in the colorful act.

The disclaimer for “Rust Belt Grotesque” comes too late for any faint-hearted audience member who walked unknowingly into the four-act ghost story. “If you found any of this offensive, disgusting or grotesque,” Clark says with a smile, “welcome to the Rust Belt.”

Review

3 stars

What: “Rust Belt Grotesque”

Where: American Repertory Theater of WNY, 16 Linwood Ave.

When: Through May 23. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7:30 pm.

Tickets: $25 general ($20 online), $18 students and veterans ($15 online).

Info: artofwny.org, brownpapertickets.com or 634-1102

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