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A double dose of playfulness

A play about modern art sounds like the opposite of lighthearted summer entertainment. But the Alley Cat Players' production of Tom Stoppard's After Magritte, at the Silver Meteor Gallery in Ybor City, is a Popsicle for the mind: bright, refreshing and very cool.

Stoppard has always been masterful at putting half a dozen kinds of art into his magician's bag, shaking it up and producing amazing plays. The one-act After Magritte, a shaggy-dog story with a painterly punch line, makes hay of the similarities between surrealism and slapstick. With its shameless puns and sly non sequiturs, it owes as much to the Marx Brothers as to Rene Magritte.

The play opens with a bizarre tableau jammed onto a teensy stage. A woman in a spangly evening gown is on hands and knees in a living room where most of the furniture is barricading the door. A bare-chested man in hip waders stands on a table, blowing gently on a light bulb. On an ironing board lies an old woman in a bathrobe and bathing cap. A policeman peers through the window.

That's the last peaceful moment. The man in waders and the woman on the floor are Reginald and Thelma Harris, professional dancers preparing for a performance. Slowing them is an argument about a peculiar figure they saw earlier that day, a figure that might have been a young man carrying a football or an old man carrying a turtle, though they agree he had only one leg.

The woman on the ironing board is Thelma's mother, maybe; what we know is that she loves playing the tuba.

Into this chaos comes one of Stoppard's beloved flatfoots, one Inspector Foot, in fact, accompanied by the young officer who was peering through the window, Constable Holmes. They're on the trail of a thief who just happens to be one-legged. Confusion, pyrotechnical language, artistic insight and a general good time ensue.

Colleen McDonnell and Steve Mountan are fine as the bickering Harrises, at home with Stoppard's twists and turns. Clare Ward is grumpily convincing as Mum, and Jimmy Chang makes a nicely naive Holmes. Scott Isert huffs and puffs as the hapless Foot.

The evening's second offering, an Alley Cats original, assembles passages, aphorisms and a fable from the writings of a number of surrealists into After After Magritte: A Surrealist Montage.

It begins with a passage from Victor Brauner's On the Fantastic: "You will like my painting (1) because it is nocturnal (2) because it is fascinating (3) because it is lyrical" and so on through 41 reasons.

This could get tiresome in a hurry. But director Jo Averill-Snell has her cast play it like a child's game, with Chang, Mountan, Ward and Barbara Eaker, who looks like Julia Stiles' more animated sister, slamming their hands and feet with each number, crouching, flouncing and leaping, and at one point going through the door to the restrooms and hollering a line from behind it.

That staging captures the energy and playfulness that were the essence of surrealism before it got bogged down in the analysis and theorizing its artists were trying to escape. After After Magritte works because it recognizes that.

Whether you're a student of surrealism or don't give a bowler hat for it, this pair of plays will air out your brain nicely. Besides, Silver Meteor has free parking. How many places in Ybor City have that?