Monday, March 16, 2009

Ruined, by Lynn Nottage

Photo Joan Marcus
Manhattan Theatre Club

Lynn Nottage’s new play, Ruined (Manhattan Theatre Club, 3/8/09), rewrites Mother Courage and Her Children in the context of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She weaves a story that chills spectators with its violence and moves us with the remnants of compassion evident in even the most hard-boiled of the play’s characters. Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) presides as the Madame of a bar and brothel isolated in a mining town in the middle of a rainforest, from which rebels and government soldiers roam and return.

Caught in the crossfire of men’s war, Mama Nadi and her girls survive by profiting from the men’s loneliness and their desire, appealing to them with seductive dance moves, sitting on their laps, teasing and cajoling them into parting with their cash and into joining the women in the bar’s back rooms, where higher prices can be charged for more intimate encounters.

Mama Nadi provides music, food, drink (however watered down her whiskey), and the comforts of female flesh to interchangeable batteries of men who arrive from the same forest, their chests adorned with weapons and their foreheads swathed in bandannas, their only distinguishing marks the color and cut of their uniforms. In fact, the warring soldiers in Ruined are played by the same male actors, implying that although their rhetoric is righteous, their brutality and crimes against humanity are equivalent and indistinguishable.

Mama Nadi’s, however, is no peaceful refuge. Only the force of her personality and the sexual pleasures with which she barters keep the soldiers from raping her and her girls and pillaging the small stores on which they survive. The social contract is utterly tenuous here; although the rainforest rows of dense trees comprise the back half of the set, they’re lit (by Peter Kaczorowski) ominously, almost as though they harbor the deliverers of the women’s violent demise. The precarious operation is both haven and hell, its safety and comfort mercurial.

Nottage builds the characters’ fear and tension slowly, delivering information about the setting and the political moment by carefully filling in the outline of her characters’ pasts, presents, and futures. When Christian (Russell Gebert Jones) arrives at the bar, along with the sundries and supplies he brings to sell to Mama Nadi, he offers her two other pieces of merchandise for the price of one. Not until he drags into the bar two dirty, clearly abused young women—Sophie and Salima—do we realize he’s been talking about people, so callus and indifferent appears the bartering between him and Mama.

Mama surveys the two women like a slave auctioneer. Sophie, Christian reveals, even though she’s beautiful, will be no good to Mama’s business because she’s been “ruined”; rebels have raped her with a bayonet and destroyed her genitals. Sophie walks with the ragged, uneven gait of someone who bears the memory of her assault in every move she makes. Despite her lack of value on Mama’s economy, the older woman reluctantly agrees to take Sophie in, along with the less physically broken young woman, Salima.

In between Mama’s tentative embrace of the two damaged women and their eventual losses and redemptions, Nottage demonstrates that Mama has more heart and shrewder politics than it at first appears. Although she treats her girls sternly, her gruff affection for them motivates her actions. Salima, too, has been raped by rebels, and forcibly separated from her husband and her little girl. Nottage unfolds Salima’s story across the play’s two acts, until her pregnancy as a result of rape, and the arrival of her desperate husband, combine to propel her to an unspeakable act that provides one of the play’s several climaxes.

Nottage modulates the play’s tension level, intercutting visits from rebels and government soldiers with more familial scenes of Mama and her girls, trying to establish some sense of a normal life in between the anxious moments with the men, whose brutality and arrogance are interchangeable. Mama and the girls suffer their presence because it puts food in their mouths, but the acts required of them in exchange fray their souls.

Sophie, however, pays her way through Mama’s employ by singing, accompanied by a guitarist and drummer who perform for the theatre’s spectators as much as for the characters in the bar. (Nottage wrote the songs’ lyrics to original music by Dominic Kanza.) Condola Rashad (Phylicia Rashad’s gorgeous young daughter) has a golden, bell-like singing voice that lights up her face. The beauty of that sound, ringing in a place of such spiritual and physical impoverishment, is a lush and heart-rending contradiction. The musical performances also provide a Brechtian element that lets spectators—and the characters—rest from the viciousness of the action, giving us a chance to breath, to think, to contemplate how a sound so beautiful could come from a situation so untenable.

The women focus Nottage’s anti-war plaint. Played by Ekulona, Mama is a powerhouse, whose gestus here, rather than Mother Courage’s fastening her teeth on each coin she earns, is to stuff into her bra the wads of cash she receives from the soldiers, patting at her breasts as they grow heavy with bills. Nestled close to her flesh and her heart, the money appears to go directly to sustenance, as though hidden from the work for which it’s payment. The money might be dirty, but lodged between her breasts, Mama Nadi rechristens it before she exchanges it with Christian for food (and the occasional piece of chocolate over which she’s enraptured).

Nottage emphasizes that the wages of war are visited on the bodies of women who are pawns in battles between men. When Salima stages her tragic protest late in the play, she shouts, “Don’t fight your wars on my body.” Ravaged by assault, these women nonetheless find dignity and strength. Mama, the towering, wily matriarch of this outpost, tells Christian, “I didn’t come as Mama Nadi; I found her here.” She steps into the shoes of a heroine, rising to an occasion not of her own making.

Men have failed these women. Salima’s husband was buying a new pot when the rebel soldiers overran their village and attacked her; she was an arbitrary victim in a war without rules, but her body bears the price. Pregnant, she cries that she’s carrying the “baby child of a monster.” As her husband pleads with Mama to allow him to see Salima, he holds the new pot in his fist, a pitiful symbol of reparations he’s unable to make.

In the play’s world—and in the real world of violence in the Congo Nottage references—raped women are considered damaged, as though the violence inflicted on their bodies is somehow their fault. Caught in such impossible contradictions, the women have nowhere to turn. Women like Mama capitalize on their spoiled flesh.

But Mama draws her empathy from another source. After a critical confrontation between the rebels and the soldiers, in which Christian and the women are caught as potential victims, life settles back into its uneasy rhythms. Christian, who’s trying to recover from alcoholism, and whose status as a merchant has marked him as somewhat less than a man throughout the play, finally articulates his love for Mama.

Suddenly, the play becomes a heterosexual romance, in which Mama and her girls are redeemed by the love of a good man. Before she can accept his affections, the previously stalwart Mama unravels with emotion, and tells Christian the secret that binds her to the women in her employ. The 11th hour confession, which Christian accepts on the way to reintegrating the nuclear family, is the play’s one false note, one that compromises the rigorous, clear-eyed story Ruined otherwise tells.

Would that Nottage had maintained her singular, Brechtian vision of the consequences of war for women to a more bitter end, instead of capitulating to realism’s mandate that narratives resolve with heterosexual marriage that solves everything. The gender politics of the Congo that Ruined describes with such force are compromised by this conservative happy ending.

Still, director Kate Whoriskey (who teaches at Princeton) stages a taut, muscular drama filled with compassionate, fierce performances (especially from Ekulona as Mama, Quincy Tyler Bernstine as the doomed Salima, and Cherise Boothe as their hardened colleague, Josephine). Rashad, as Sophie, is the story’s fragile, luminous center, the hope in the women’s despair. She makes Ruined a moving testament to survival.

The Feminist Spectator

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The L Word: Good Night and Good-Bye

From the Showtime web site

And so they go, the girls of The L Word, off into the LA lesbian sunset . . . or wait, are they going into the police station to give their testimonies about Jenny’s mysterious death to the hot sheriff who came to investigate her drowning? An overhead shot at the show’s end lets us watch as a number of very large cars pull into a nearly empty parking lot in some ambiguous LA location, from which the city, glittering at dusk, looms in the background. One after another, our heroines leave their vehicles and walk—each in her idiosyncratic way, but each looking remarkably like a model, with that showy swagger, that lithe, winsome affect, and that hair blowing in a breeze that comes from nowhere—toward a destination ultimately unknown.

At first, their faces are serious. Perhaps they’re thinking toward their fateful meetings with Lucy Lawless (in an amusing piece of intertextual casting) as the sheriff, Sergeant Duffy. But wait, moments into their individual saunters, they begin to smile, almost slyly. Gradually, the women meet up and acknowledge one another, in twos and threes, ending up in a long row of L Word women, their arms wound gleefully around each others’ waists in a final kick-line to send off their six-season show.

Bette and Tina smile particularly widely—after all, they began the end by deciding to decamp to New York, where perhaps this time, Tina really will pull her weight and Bette really will let her be the family’s Uber-mom. Or maybe Kit’s new erstwhile drag queen lover—whom Angie sweetly calls “Daddy” when he and Kit bring the little one home after a trip to the zoo—will join them and create a transgendered as well as biracial nuclear family. Maybe Max, despite his sudden aw-shucks reaction to his baby’s first kicks, will move to New York, too, and ask Bette and Tina to help him raise his child (or maybe they’ll adopt his kid after all, and Max will grow his beard back).

Hard to say. But in those final moments of winsome walking, everything seems both possible and forgiven. Even the wretched Jenny Schecter is resurrected from the recently-dead to join the long march toward The L Word’s ending, wearing some sort of gold lamé dress and, eventually, smiling, too, as Bette and Tina and then Shane reach out their hands to bring her back into the fold. But hey—are they still acting? Or are they Jennifer Beals, Laurel Holloman, Kate Moenning, and Mia Kirschner, just taking their curtain call?

Since the producers held the valedictory credits until the very end, I was surprised to see that Ilene Chaiken wrote and directed the finale. The episode was shot with a sense of style and written with a kind of restraint that I haven’t associated with Chaiken’s work in recent seasons. A lot of final exposition had to be set up and moved along, but the dialogue that accomplished the girls’ propulsion into their futures was crisp and true to character.

Even the camera work got a bit arty, especially in the interspersed, flashed-ahead scenes of the women’s interrogation at the police station, where high, stark lighting, dramatic angles, and extreme close-ups gave them a cool film noir style. Chaiken lent scenes set in “West Hollywood” some equally varied angles, shooting a number of them from high above the action. (Maybe she was just giving us a god’s-eye view on the characters she created.) The filmic choices gave the episode a richer texture. And happily, Betty’s grating theme song was absent, replaced by a music collection ranging from female pop artists to melancholic cello work, all of which heightened the emotions of the moment.

After all, this was the swan song for history’s first more or less mainstream lesbian soap opera/“dramedy.” That it lasted six seasons (for which spectators were thanked in a producer’s note after the credits) seems remarkable and notable, regardless of whether you watched avidly and with pleasure or watched not at all, unable to stomach the whole proceedings. During a visit I made recently to the University of Maryland, more than one lesbian apologized for not being a fan; one even said with dismay, “Do I have to watch it?”

Of course, I said no, since I’m hardly the arbiter of these things. But why not, I wondered? Isn’t it even fun to hate? Is it just that my nearly 52-year-old self is still amazed to be watching Lez Girls cavort, between the sheets, at the Planet, at Helena’s palatial ocean-side abode, at Bette and Tina’s newly renovated house, with its pool-side cabana and its conveniently, fatefully unsteady deck railing? While I, too, got impatient or bored with the show more than once through its run, I watched every episode and I’m sad that it’s over.

It’s not that I won’t have other things to do with my Sunday nights. But a story has ended in which I felt implicated and cathected, emotionally and psychologically connected to characters that had little to do with my life, but everything to do with a cultural moment I needed to mark and enjoy on a weekly basis. The availability of television by and about lesbians required me to witness it as a new wrinkle in the American cultural zeitgeist. I don’t want to see the space The L Word created in public consciousness close over without a ripple.

Gossip has it that Chaiken is developing a spin-off for Leisha Haley. Another lesbian-focused series would be terrific, but Alice Pieszecki became one of the least interesting characters on The L Word. Why couldn’t she let go of Tasha, even after it was Alice who seemed attracted elsewhere at the end of season five? Haley and Rose Rollins are capable performers, but their chemistry as a couple was never convincing. In their brighter moments, their banter and teasing and flirting were fun, but their sex scenes always lacked conviction. Haley and Rollins just couldn’t manufacture on-screen magic. Mei Melancon, playing the last season’s third wheel interloper, Jamie, and Rollins, although they never consummated their attraction, gave their longing gazes more zing.

In fact, Tasha’s return to Alice at the last episode’s 11th hour seemed unrealistic, a forced happy ending rather than a choice the character actually might have made. Alice and Tasha were never right together; why not choose the biracial girl who seemed to “get” Tasha instead of Alice, who always blundered through their relationship, disrespecting Tasha’s difference on numerous levels. Alice became shrewish and grasping by the end.

When she confronted Jamie and Tasha about their feelings for one another at the Planet in the last episode, and Jamie finally confirmed her love for Tasha, Alice acted like a teenager, saying, “Thank you. And fuck you,” and later, “Shut up,” as Jamie tried to talk to her. The old Alice might have been tougher, her response more complicated. For someone who began the series as the keeper of the Chart—that genealogical web of dyke relationships, that cartographic image of incestuous lesbian lives—Alice became strangely attached to a very conventional notion of monogamy.

Still, much of the humor in the last episode came from Alice’s drunken day waiting for Tasha to choose her or Jamie. Alice wiles away the tense time talking on the phone to Shane and Helena, fantasizing about what Tasha and Jamie are doing together. Haley got the one-liners right; it made me miss Alice’s video blog, when she served as the voice of a community, commenting on its mores and foibles. Too bad Chaiken reduced Alice to just another needy lesbian by the finale.

Shane, on the other hand, seems to be the character who grew the most. The final show spends a lot of time resolving her narrative thread. She conveniently bumps into her most recent ex, Molly (Clementine Ford), in a gift store. When Molly refers to dropping off Shane’s coat and the letter that (of course) Jenny never passed on to Shane, poor Shane blanches visibly, as the shoe drops and the various pieces of Jenny’s deception and its consequences fall into place.

Ford makes a crisp, wistful cameo appearance. With a new girl looking soulfully into her eyes, Molly’s able to tell Shane that she’s over her and that it’s okay. Shane initiated her, and like so many other girls, Molly fell for her hard. But she’s okay, Molly says, and trots off to put her new arm candy back on. The devastated Shane watches her past and her preferred future walk out the door and races home to find Molly’s letter in the jacket Jenny stuffed in the attic of their house. In the process, she comes across the stolen negatives of Lez Girls that Jenny had stashed away the whole time.

The last episode confirmed that Jenny truly was pathological. She stole the negatives; she kept Shane from Molly; she meddled outrageously in Helena and Dylan’s relationship, as well as Bette and Tina’s. Thanks to Jenny, Helena rejects Dylan (Alexandra Hedison), forever unable to trust that Dylan loves her for herself and not her money. (“It’s a cliché,” Rachel Shelley says into the camera, during her scene with Sergeant Duffy, eyes batting, “But it’s hard to be rich.”) It’s a shame Helena has to dump Dylan, since their rekindled relationship was one of The L Word’s more mature, their sex the best Rachel Shelley ever performed on the show. In one of the several reminiscence reels available from Showtime On Demand, Shelley remarks that she and Hedison “clicked”—it shows.

Jenny’s plan to tell Tina about what she mistakenly believes is Bette’s infidelity proves the final straw. In my oh-so-close examination of the last episode, I think Chaiken intimates that Bette killed Jenny. Their last scene together on the deck leaves the two women in a face off, with Bette practically snarling that she won’t let Jenny hurt her family. As the scene cuts away, Jenny’s lower lip trembles with defiance. After Bette returns to the house, Jenny is never seen again.

And is Jennifer Beals smiling just a bit too knowingly in that final bow? And why is her interrogation scene with Sergeant Duffy repeated twice, shot at a different, even closer angle, but with the same dialogue, as Bette repeatedly rolls up the sleeves on her crisp white blouse? “Jenny is complicated, complex,” Bette says thoughtfully, “talented, sometimes generous, but complicated, complex.” What’s that supposed to mean? And how could Bette, with the walls of her home adorned with smart, contemporary feminist art, think that Jenny’s execrable novel and trashy film indicates talent?

Setting Bette up to take the fall for Jenny’s murder—even if only implicitly—continues the demonizing of Bette for her season one original sin of her affair with the carpenter. Bette’s vilification is one of The L Word’s most conservative ploys. In the end, Bette tells Kit that she’s sick of everyone being in her business. I don’t blame her, given how eager they all became to vilify Bette and how easily her friends and her sister believed that she’d stepped out on Tina with the horrible gallery owner Kelly Wentworth (Elizabeth Berkeley, not at all redeeming her Showgirls debacle). Surely Bette has more taste than to be attracted to the manipulative, voracious Kelly, when she’s got earnest, exasperated but lovely Laurel Holloman at home.

Bette and Tina have always been the show’s leading couple; they were destined to be together at its end. Shane, in fact, gives them a nice nod, stumbling upon them after one of her nights out carousing as Bette and Tina sit on their house steps, drinking coffee and beginning their day after a night of loud sex and quiet intimacy. (Scenes of them sleeping intertwined are all shot from above, too; the goddess is watching, don’t you know.) Quoting the threesome’s exchange from the first season, Shane teases them about having sex—she can always sense when they’ve been at it, and her envy is rueful and sweet. Using the same moment to bookend the series is a lovely acknowledgment of the couple’s longevity.

Jenny’s farewell video for Bette and Tina brings all the women together for a nostalgia fest. The intercut clips of testimonials from friends near and far serve as a benediction for the show as well as the characters. Karina Lombard appears in a silly clip as the long forgotten Marina, speaking now with a French accent since she’s apparently moved to the south of France. She’s probably sorry she missed those six seasons of steady work. Tim (Eric Mabius) pops on to wish them well, cracking jokes about “crazy” Jenny. (Mabius generously sets aside his Ugly Betty character to resurrect Tim.) Ivan (Kelly Lynch), in his rather Goth trans regalia, sends regards staged in front of a placard that says “Vote No on 8,” bringing the show into the political present.

The soigné Peggy Peabody, played by the inimitable Holland Taylor, gives Bette and Tina her blessing, making me nostalgic for the good old days when Bette was mounting the “Provocations” show at the LA museum. Angus (Dallas Roberts), who betrayed Kit with Angie’s babysitter, says he’s got his heart open and waiting for Bette and Tina in New York. Jodi (Marlee Matlin) signs to the camera how much they’ve changed her life, surprisingly setting aside her ugly break-up with Bette (or maybe she’s just being ironic). Even the jilted Carmen (Sarah Shahi) appears, looking self-serious (and not at all like “herself” or like a lesbian) to wish the couple well.

Kit jokes that the video is a catalogue of her ex-lovers, but the clips recall many of the women’s former romantic entanglements. (At least Jenny/Chaiken steered clear of including clips of the long dead and gone Dana, which would have been really cloying.) That these old characters appear in Jenny’s video brings the show full circle and gestures toward a truism of many lesbians’ lives—ex-lovers do eventually become friends, because we need and value the extended circle of people who once were intimates. Watching the women watch what amounts to a home movie underlines their intimacy and their kinship. (Max calls them “framily”—more than friends, not quite family.)

As they watch her (three hour) video, the gang finally realizes that Jenny isn’t there to see their reactions. Alice, who’s valiantly decided to be friends with Jenny again, goes to search her out. Max quips, rather uncharacteristically, “Maybe someone threw water on her and she melted,” which turns out to be not far from the truth. They should have noticed Jenny’s Pomeranian frantically sniffing and whining around the pool while they were eating popcorn and watching the video.

Some viewers are disappointed that Jenny’s murder, so touted in previews and so anticipated in the script, was so anticlimactic. Did Jenny fall in the pool? Did she jump? Was she pushed? By Bette? Who cares? We’ll never know and it hardly matters. Perhaps Chaiken was just trying to fulfill fans’ wishes, many of whom have wanted Jenny dead since the first season. Like so many others over the show’s run, the plot point was contrived and unnecessary; Bette and Tina’s move from LA would have been enough to wrap up the story.

But Jenny’s death keeps The L Word true to its roots. The show was always a fantasy, a fairy tale about beautiful, sexy lesbians who never seemed to worry about money, despite how often they changed precarious jobs. The clothes, the bodies, the situations—few of them were authentic to most people’s idea of what it’s like to be a lesbian, or a dyke, or queer in early 21st century America.

But The L Word’s flashes of humorous insight, and complicated desire, and hard fought relationships, and fraught friendship networks, and love and commitment among a group of women who helped one another survive really did hit a vein of something true. For those moments, I’ll miss it.

Mourning an era’s end,
The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Streetcar Named Desire at Princeton

Usually, there's something pathetic (and as a result irritating) about the women in Williams's Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche is flighty and damaged, and Stella is so blindly in love with Stanley, she follows him around like a puppy waiting for him to throw her a bone. Usually, too, even though Blanche, well, blanches when she sees the squalor into which Stella has descended from their glory days on their family's Belle Reve plantation, in other productions, the size of the stage makes the apartment in New Orleans's French Quarter seem spacious and colorful.

The Princeton Program in Theatre and Dance's terrific production of Streetcar (3/6/09) avoids both of these traps. To take the second trap first, thanks to set designer Jeffrey Van Velsor's spot-on conception, a good half of the expansive Berlind Theatre stage at the McCarter Theatre is blocked off for use as the social environment surrounding the apartment. Characters exit to walk the streets or saunter off to the bowling alley or bar nearby. The other half is a small, square, raked platform, onto which is crammed Stella and Stanley's tiny kitchen, with its filthy sink, ancient refrigerator, and few worn wooden cabinets, as well as its round table and four chairs, at which Stanley and his buddies spend most of their time in energetic, beer- and cigarette-infused games of low-stakes poker.

A sheer white curtain, hung on a precarious rod from a few thin rings, separates this very public space from Stella and Stanley's bedroom, which is adorned with an over-sized bed, a narrow dresser, and a rickety night table. Behind this room is the bathroom, enclosed with an imaginary door that's mimed by the actors. The audience watches voyeuristically as each of the characters enters what should be their only truly private space, where they use the toilet (quite realistically), shower, gaze at themselves in the mirror, change their clothes, and otherwise try to compose themselves for the on-going battle to survive that comprises their lives.

The bathroom “mirror” looks into the apartment’s kitchen, which allows the audience to see how the characters peer at themselves and also underlines the permeability between the rooms. Blanche's Army-issue cot hovers downstage in the nether-region between the public and the private spaces, with her trunk of worldly possessions as her only furniture. Blanche's tiny corner overflows with her finery and her fantasies, as she begins to spin her deluded narrative of her past, her present, and her future.

The cramped space quickly becomes a powder keg when Blanche arrives, as she robs Stella and Stanley of their little privacy. Without her presence, as Stanley complains to Stella, they'd “play our colored lights” and enjoy the intense and intimate pleasures of one another's flesh, which draws them magnetically together. With Blanche and her fantasies sucking the air out of their home, Stanley becomes the violent animal Blanche assumes he is from the start, and Stella is frustrated and exhausted by trying to mediate between her sister and her husband.

The lack of room to breathe—and the New Orleans heat, which the actors here all manifest in the sweat they wear across their foreheads—makes it difficult for anyone to be civil or loving, and lets the audience feel viscerally how their circumstances trap the characters, forcing them to either lash out or to weave stories that allow them to escape their surroundings, if only in their dreams.

In this production, the female characters are far from pathetic, avoiding the second typical trap for Streetcar. In Shannon Lee Clair's intelligent, nuanced portrayal, Blanche is a woman desperate to survive in much reduced circumstances. The character is often played as driven only by desire, and moralized against as a slut masquerading as a saint. But Clair’s delivery clarifies that Blanche has suffered the devastation of her homestead, burying her parents and their servants as they each slowly decline and decay, then finding herself left with nothing ("Death is expensive, Stella," she says cuttingly).

Stanley finds out that Blanche has been working not just as a teacher but also as a prostitute in Laurel, Louisiana, and proceeds to deride her for her loose morals and easy virtues. But Clair's Blanche is a woman who'll do anything to survive. She’s tough and resilient, and though her choices aren't always admirable, she's kept food on her table and a roof over her head. Until, that is, she's run out of Laurel by the sheriff for having sex with one of her 17-year-old male students.

That indiscretion reveals Blanche's motivating guilt: She married, quite young, a beautiful boy who turned out to be gay. When she stumbled on him and an older man having sex, her disgust rushed the boy toward suicide, an action for which she still can't forgive herself. Blanche is eternally caught in a nexus of guilt and desire from which she can't be extricated. She flashes back to the scene of her betrayal, hearing again and again the carnival noises and the flashing lights that accompanied her harsh confrontation of her husband, and the gunshot that signaled his death.

Director Tracy Bersley illustrates the flashbacks with sound and lights, as the interior of Blanche's psychic turmoil is manifested on stage. For a play that's more often staged as strict realism, these flights into the sensual texture of Blanche's fixations make for very compelling theatre. And while those moments could sink into melodrama, Clair's Blanche tethers them to a keen sense of the woman's unbearable remorse, her desire to make it right, and her inability to stop finding herself attracted to young boys who stand in for her dead lover.

Stella is hardly a simpering fool in the Princeton production. Played with intelligence and warmth by Veronica Siverd, Stella becomes a compassionate foil, caught in her corner of the triangle she comprises with Blanche and Stanley. She knows that Blanche is fading off into fantasy and she can see that Stanley is infuriated by her sister's class snobbery and phony airs. But Siverd plays Stella's love for them both as sincere and complicated.

Stella's drawn to the physicality of her life with Stanley, but in Siverd's hands, she’s equally thrilled by her life in the French Quarter, with the jazz playing through the apartment's windows, the speakeasies to visit down the block, Stanley's bowling games to watch, and the easy camaraderie of her upstairs neighbors, whose easy laughter and on-again off-again domestic squabbles echo her own. Stella has saved herself from Belle Reve's ruin by making her own way in New Orleans, finding Stanley and reinventing her life. She knows that Blanche can't drag her back, but she's compelled by her own guilt at the burden Blanche has borne on her behalf.

All the actors present excellent performances. Tyler Crosby's Stanley avoids the temptation to imitate the iconic Marlon Brando characterization, and instead finds Stanley's scheming, workmanlike intelligence, if not his intellect. Crosby's Stanley knows he's not smart, but he compensates by being wily and manipulative, asserting his power through mental as well as physical intimidation. Shawn Fennell is gentlemanly and effete as Mitch, nicely playing the double standard of a man who wants his women to be virginal yet is willing to take his turn when he finds out they're whores, as he does with Blanche.

Peter Walkingshaw and Stephen Strenio play very well the burdens of working class men trying to enjoy themselves over poker and a case of beer, and Arielle Sandor and Alexis Brown ably create the women who are Stella's compassionate, empathetic but strong neighbors. James Mears, Cristina Luzarraga, Brad Baron, and Laura Hankin all take advantage of their supporting roles, turning in crisp images of the characters who people Streetcar’s world.

Bersley reprints in the program parts of a letter Williams wrote to Elia Kazan, who directed the Broadway production and the film version of Streetcar, which relates that he thinks the play is about the tragedy of judging one another falsely. In the spirit of our times, however, this production of Streetcar seems to me much more about the lengths to which people will go to survive, when their reduced circumstances give them so few options. Love becomes a pawn in a game that's much more about economics than emotion, but still, the characters with the most compassion remain standing with their hearts intact at the end.

The Feminist Spectator

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Savannah Disputation

Kellie Overbey, Dana Ivey, Reed Birney and Marylouise Burke
Photo by Joan Marcus

As religion and fundamentalism come under closer scrutiny, one can only hope, in the aftermath of the Bush administration’s refusal to separate church and state, plays like Savannah Disputation (at Playwrights Horizons, 3/8/09) are a welcome addition to the debate. Evan Smith’s play is ultimately a confection, but its wry barbs and ironic parries with questions of faith and belief sure taste good going down. With sharp comic performances by all four actors and direction by Walter Bobbie that keeps the action going and the dialogue moving, the play scores some minor but necessary points for secular humanism.

Marylouise Burke plays her stock dotty grandmotherly character, this time in the person of Margaret, an elderly, never-married woman who lives with her sister, Mary, played with perpetually rolling eyes by Dana Ivey. When Melissa, an evangelical missionary (Kellie Overbey), arrives at their door, Margaret can’t resist engaging the challenges to her Catholicism that the woman’s proselytizing provokes. Although the more sober-minded Mary dismisses the young woman without a second thought, Margaret arranges for her to return for an evening’s discussion about matters of faith.

Against Mary’s wishes, Melissa descends on their home with her show-and-tell box of trivial pursuit questions about Jesus and his teachings. Frustrated by her mindless but strangely persuasive adherence to what Mary considers heresy, the ever rational but clearly competitive sister invites Melissa back, clandestinely arranging for Father Murphy (the terrific Reed Birney, late of his virtuosic turn in Blasted at Soho Rep) to join them as ministerial ballast in their debate.

The third scene of this zingy three-part 90-minute play stages the confrontation between the surprised, hesitant clergyman and the eager young evangelist, both of whom, it seems, have turned to religion to quiet their own personal demons rather than because they’re inherently believers. Father Murphy sets Melissa straight while making it clear that he admires her fervent desire to commit her life to something that matters, while at the same time chastising Mary for using him as a pawn in her contest. He suggests that Margaret address her own gullibility (and grow up) and exits the evening ruefully, inviting himself back next week for his regular dinner with the sisters.

The play is rather pat, and Father Murphy’s service as the intellectual and emotional agent for the three women is irritating. Rather bland and milquetoast, he’s not the most compelling character. Savannah Disputation would be more interesting if it were Mary who prevailed on her own terms, instead of by maneuvering her priest into being her mouthpiece. Instead, she’s left at the play’s end standing by her answering machine, listening to the fourth message from her doctor’s office, urgently asking her to call in for her test results.

The specter of mortality that hovers over the character is too easy an excuse for her crisis of faith, and leaves the audience feeling manipulated. The comic dialogue offers more than a few entertaining moments, and Smith’s writing is knowing and observant about the foibles of religious devotion. But to write off Mary’s quandary as an effect of a life-threatening illness needlessly moves the play to movie-of-the-week territory. The four excellent actors deserve better.

The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Illustrated Feminist Spectator . . .

Thanks to Marilee Lindemann of Roxie's World (see "Fellow Travelers" on my sidebar, which is my new version of the blog roll), I've managed to add a few gadgets to The Feminist Spectator.

I appreciate all of you who sign up as Followers, and I'm beginning to add more links and cross-referenced material to better engage the on-line information community and hopefully make The Feminist Spectator more useful to all of you.

In future posts (which I continue to hope will be more and more frequent), I intend to include photos of the various productions, films, or television shows about which I'm writing, and even the occasional YouTube clip . . . When I manage that, I'll know I've arrived.

Thanks for reading, and for your patience with my text-heavy site.

I'm looking forward to the visuals myself and in the interim, have included this shot from a hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies last summer. My bit for environmental sustainability . . .

The Feminist Spectator