University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre has opened its season in a really offbeat way. Rather than offer a major play or big production, it has a one-man show focusing on by-now rather obscure subjects, subjects which no doubt have an undying cult following. If probably small these days.
It deals with really small characters, too: a literate cockroach named Archy and a sassy alley cat called Mehitabel. They were the 1916 creations of New York novelist, poet, playwright and newspaper columnist Don Marquis. And, over the next 10 or so years, little Archy's satirical writings in Marquis' columns developed larger and larger followings.
Gale McNeeley, versatile performer and visiting professor at Pitt, put together A One-Man Archy & Mehitabel, doubtlessly to widen appreciation of Marquis. Over the course of 90 minutes, his choice of material and his interpretations justify a widespread belief that Marquis was one hell of a wordsmith and a snappy observer of human foibles and pretentions.
McNeeley dons costume fragments to suggest characters, comes up with a vast range of speaking voices, sings sturdily and tunefully, and even delivers what sounds like a forerunner of rap. Still, this entertaining presentation most resembles an informal illustrated lecture, with McNeeley often talking directly to the audience, as if to friends at a party.
McNeeley demonstrates that Marquis explored basketfuls of amusingly pointed themes, with Archy (a reincarnated poet) as his medium. Like Kafka's contemporaneous Gregor, Archy also saw "things from the underside." As for Mehitabel, she too believed in the transmigration of souls, and lamented that her feline life of perpetual motherhood impeded her career as a dancer.
But those two wonderful creatures surface only intermittently in this somewhat meandering presentation, which also includes extracts from other clever Marquis writings. And, for no logical reason, McNeely tacks on a rapid-fire performance of Wayne and Shuster's brilliant (if uncredited) "Shakespearean Baseball Game."
Archy wrote that "procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday." McNeely wants to keep us up with yesterday's written delights. Don't put off the chance to partake of what he offers.
A One-Man Archy & Mehitabel continues through Sun., Sept. 19. Henry Heymann Theater, Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. 412-624-7529 or www.pitt.edu/~play