Bare Theatre‘s current show, on view for the next week at the Visual Art Exchange, makes for a longish sit in uncomfortable folding chairs, but the acting ensemble is first-rate, there’s considerable variety in the dramatic material, the good parts are really, really good, and during the arid stretches there’s a nice show on the (nearby) gallery walls to divert attention.

The evening is dubbed “The Leader,” saluting the 1953 sketch by Eugène Ionesco, which opens the show. All by itself, this bit of hero-worshipping absurdity would make the investment worthwhile, particularly now, as our presidential election season lurches to its conclusion. The parallels are obvious, as even casual viewers of ___ (insert any cable TV news channel) know only too well. And if some of this anticipates (retrospectively…) Brother Dave’s “Are you going to be here when John gets here…” routine, well, that’s more than ok. Here, the leader proves to be headless. Elsewhere, leaders may be stuffed shirts or emperors without clothes. Too often, it seems, the bottom line is the same.

While waiting for the show to begin, a patron was heard to say, “The waitress was a total loss.” Her bit of improv prefaced the show’s welcoming remarks, given in French. Did we say “absurd”?

The evening consisted of the Ionesco and seven other pieces, four by Bare Theatre’s G. Todd Buker and three by Chuck Keith. That several of these complemented the opener speaks of the keen inventiveness and imagination of these writers. (That not all of them are on the same level is more than fine, too.)

The plays were set up with preludes of sorts, and postludes and interludes provided further demarcation. There were some recurring themes among these interstitial bits of choreography (by Heather J. Strickland), vaudeville, burlesque, and such; some of these – particularly the getting-baby-to-eat sequences – wore a bit thin as the evening progressed, reminding one that a good editor never hurt any theatrical undertaking. On the other hand these sections provided a certain sense of thematic unity and surely eased what might otherwise have been some abrupt transitions between theatrical segments. And there was further variety in the way some of these playlets were set up. Keith’s “Lemmings,” for example, a logical follow-on for the mindless enthusiasm shown in “The Leader,” is prefaced with a film clip of the little creatures hurling themselves off a cliff.

There was a break as we visited the local school board – or was it? – for Buker’s “Democratists’ Dilemma” before an anatomical overview of the leader – a leader reduced to his lowest common denominator – and then Keith’s “Cult Layoff,” describing an altogether different type of leadership figure.

Intermission permitted an escape for two patrons as the rest witnessed in-character set changes. Yes, in this case, the play was the thing throughout, from start to finish.

Buker’s “Two Rulers” hammered home contemporary political themes with a vengeance, the rhymed text merely enhancing the absurdity of our collective plight, in which the joke may well be on all of us.

“Down with the Ship” echoes Titanic themes in which our leaders abandon us to our own devices, sometimes with fatal consequences.

And Keith’s grand finale demonstrates leadership of the most basic kind – for God’s sake, don’t tell Todd Aiken or Richard Mourdock!

The least congruous bit was a burlesque section after “Democratists” that went on too long and bore little overt relationship to the evening’s overriding theme. One suspects, too, that the member of the audience drafted into this bit of fluff wishes she’d been sitting on the second row.

Among the numerous felicitous touches were screenings of incoming patrons by overly-enthusiastic “TSA” personnel, recordings of national anthems as the audience assembled, and the murder of a cell-phone user. Good stuff. And unlike our leaders, these folks go away when the evening is over.

So the results are mixed – some ups, some downs, some puzzlements. By and large, however, the eight short plays provide up-close-and-personal theatre of the most engaging kind, even if some sections misfire. And the ensemble makes it all worthwhile, for ensemble theatre this is. In alphabetical order, the players are Loren Armitage, Jeff Buckner, Patrick Cox, Matt Fields, Matthew Hager,* Joanna Herath, Diana McQueen, Stephen Wall, and Cassandra Wladyslava.

The show continues through Veterans’ Day. For details, see the sidebar.

*For the record, when he’s not on stage, Hager moonlights as CVNC‘s Calendar Coordinator.