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Stripping away the layers of 'Beirut' and 'M. Butterfly' - Part 1

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It's been a remarkable several days of "grin and bare it" for intrepid theater critics this week. There has been a lot to see and a lot more to the eye than the typical fine production values one looks for when reviewing the offerings on stage. In the case of two local productions, there is Beirut, which has closed and M. Butterfly, which just opened. Like two bookends, one featured the back side of the performers very ample attributes, while the other leaves little to the imagination, especially in one pivotal scene.

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Beirut was remarkable because it was played with exuberance by Christopher Ramage as Torch and Idella Johnson as Blue. Written by the late Alan Bowne, who unfortunately died as a result of AIDS in 1989, Beirut is the story of a fictionalized vision of New York in the near future during an outbreak of a rampant disease spread like HIV by human bodily contact and sharing of needles. The Orwellian government imposes a quarantine on the inhabitants of a section of the city code-named Beirut, where infected people are forced to live under the penalty of being shot by enforcement agents. Blue, who loves Tourch for his efforts to fight the authorities, pretends to be infected to get past the authorities and stay with him.

There is a New Orleans connection to this play. When it premiered off Broadway in 1987, the role of Torch was originated by our native son Michael David Morrison, an actor known to soap opera fans in the following five years as Caleb Snyder on "As the World Turns." His girlfriend Blue was played by a still unknown Marisa Tomei, whose big break came five years later with My Cousin Vinny. Sadly, Morrison died of a combination of alcohol, cocaine and opiates in 1993 just a few years after Bowne, and he is buried in Lake Lawn Cemetery.

Directed by Dane Rhodes and Fred Nuccio for Actor's Choice Productions, Beirut was brilliantly staged with a dismal-looking set by Marty and Ryan Grissom and the two directors. The play probably had more impact when AIDS was decimating the ranks of theatre people in the late 1980s, when it first opened. But even today it speaks on several layers to the authoritarian nature of governments and how the word resistance may be employed to fight those governments, while also fighting the disease that has afflicted them.

Beirut closed this week on the stage of Mid City Theatre after four performances over a two-week period.