Ex-con steps from cage to stage

Posted: September 12, 2007

Local actor and acting teacher Christian Lisak finished his most recent run - 10 months in federal prison for participating in a lucrative marijuana sales ring - about three weeks ago. He's presenting That's Why They Don't Call It Picnic, his prison-life story, with autobiographical details, under the aegis of Vagabond Acting Troupe, a company he has been associated with.

Lisak was all the buzz one day last week on the local Theatre Alliance online postings after an e-mailer objected that his prisonhood is inappropriate performance fodder - like profiting from a crime. Others came to his First Amendment defense, some stressing that this is a Fringe festival; if your own felony's unacceptable, what's the point?

I would hardly call Lisak's presentation a performance. It works as a guest lecture in a sociology class, but as a monologue, it's rough around most edges; Lisak keeps haltingly referring to notes, which themselves seem unpolished. And as a theater piece, Picnic hasn't emerged.

Lisak is onto something - you sense the passion for storytelling when he describes how a high-end Center City drug delivery works, or the satisfaction of running a prison acting class. But even for monologue, he needs a director, blocking and basic stagecraft - stuff you'd expect Vagabond to deliver.

He can be soft-spoken, sitting too far from the stage-front at a small computer table, playing too-loud music on his laptop, often drowning himself out (worse for those near a theater cooling fan). And he sits too much. He's affable and sincere - but Picnic begs also for organization, animation and candor.

Lisak, who pleaded guilty, never speaks of the mega-bucks the feds say crossed palms, or even hints at his motivations. And what does he mean when he says stuff like "the choices we make are the best ones we can make at that given moment in time"? I doubt he's a self-apologist; his presentation seems the antithesis of aggrandizing spin. But who knows?

He may not have had a lot of time to put Picnic together - well, some would argue he had almost a year - but Lisak, whose calling is the stage, has the sense of timing and theatricality to make it work. If he pursues it, it will.

$10. 9 tonight at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.

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