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Acting and activism meet in 'Shouting Theatre'

It's refreshing to see a play with an agenda. Of course, when a play is based on the writings of historian and activist Howard Zinn, it's practically impossible to avoid having an agenda. Written and directed by Boston's Wesley Savick, the new ''Shouting Theatre in a Crowded Fire" weaves together Zinn's ideological notions and Savick's personal stories in a sort of theater-in-the-raw format.

Six actors mill about a blank stage at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, pulling the props they need into the playing space and disposing of them casually, as they create scenes that must meet their director's approval.

Savick, a participant, sits out in the audience at a small desk and speaks through a microphone in a role that is part Spalding Gray, part Zach, the tough director from ''A Chorus Line."

The production incorporates pop music, theater history, puppetry, and game shows into 10 vignettes, each of which serves as a self-aware commentary on the act and activism involved in performing. The actors make no effort to disguise their craft, often breaking from planned scenes to argue a point with Savick.

The play feels like the theatrical equivalent of an M.C. Escher drawing, constantly circling back upon itself.

Zinn is probably best known for his book ''A People's History of the United States," which traces America's development from the perspective of the marginalized. Epic in scope, the book is not a natural for the stage. So Savick mined several other Zinn writings, selecting provocative quotes and inserting them into this short play.

All the actors are young, nimble, and seemingly fearless -- recruited from the past and present ranks of the Suffolk University theater program, where Savick is a professor. Generally speaking, the men fare better than the women. Joseph Jellie, Nael Nacer, and Alex Pollack are particularly adept at making the leaps and switches from playing an actor to becoming a character to quoting Zinn. Pollack stands out, crisscrossing the stage with a coiled intensity, looking like a fair young Gary Sinise.

Among the women, Maria LeBlanc is probably the most engaging, even though she is saddled with leading the ensemble through the more opaque sections of the play.

Brian J. Lilienthal's lighting design deposits Spartan pools of illumination as well as full-on blasts, all while cleverly incorporating a lighting instrument that the ensemble operates from a corner of the stage.

Julie Pittman's soundscape enhances the production by serving as both prompter and punch line.

Neither flawless nor finished, ''Shouting Theatre in a Crowded Fire" is an entirely unpolluted theatrical experience.

Some of its meanderings are made forgivable by the energy of its committed ensemble. Savick's challenge will be to clarify it without compromising the ever-important edge.

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