Beating of wings

Stage West's The Swan lacks the power to get aloft

If plays were judged by the number of literary allusions they contain, The Swan would rate high.

This elliptical, enervating drama by Elizabeth Egloff is rife with references and parallels to works including Ovid's Metamorphoses, Yeat's poem, "Leda and the Swan," Grimm's fairy tales, and Kafka's Metamorphosis. Unfortunately, it takes more than invoking mythology to create a work of mythic power, and The Swan lacks too much of the latter to really take fight.

The play concerns a single gal named Dora (Linda Marie Ford) who works as a nurse or therapist and leads a generally insipid, loveless life "somewhere in Nebraska." (By the way, someone at the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce really ought to look into why artists keep selecting the state as a symbol of bleakness, mediocrity, and despair. Why not Kansas or South Dakota?) Dora's a three-time loser in the romance department. A previous boyfriend and a former spouse both jilted her, and her second husband killed himself the day after they were married.

Dora's life takes a more positive twist, however, on a dark and stormy night when a swan crashes into her window as she lies in mid-dream on the sofa. She takes the stunned critter in and makes it comfortable in a basket lined with blankets that she lays on the living-room floor. In an impressive piece of stagecraft, which turns out to be the highlight of the play, the swan transforms itself into a man, and emerges from the basket and blankets as from a womb.

The swan (an intrepid Michael Malizia) is naked as a jay bird, and thrashes about Dora's small home as any stunned swan would, which, upon awakening, found itself trapped in a confined space with a human.

Malizia does a crack job of capturing the mannerisms and cranky attitude of an animal about which much has been written, although his bird is drawn more from "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" than from Swan Lake. (And in what state is Omaha, pray tell? Nebraska. It's a clear case of conceptual continuity on the playwright's part.) Malizia's naturalistic approach to his portrayal of the swan includes a disturbing depiction of its voracious, slightly nauseating table manners, the worst I've seen since prep school.

Bill, as Dora calls the swan, slowly acquires the trappings of humanity, donning a robe, then pants, a shirt, and eventually an entire raffish black ensemble like an Italian mobster's or a gigolo's garb. His squawky swan's vocal cords learn to wrap themselves around human language, and Dora and he converse, at first like a woman to her pet, but later more like a woman with her lover. It's clear that the swan has a thing for Dora, and Dora finds Bill's passion and willingness to commit (swans mate for life) strangely appealing.

There's a fly in the ointment, though. Dora is going steady with Kevin (Chamblee Ferguson), a milkman. Kevin is already married, but claims he's determined (well, practically determined) to make a life with Dora. Annoyed that Bill seems to be poaching on his preserves, Kevin swan-naps the bird and attempts to elope with Dora. Romantic love prevails, however, and Dora sprouts wings and flies away with Bill.

The play's premise holds the potential for humor, commentary, and even poetry, but as written, it doesn't deliver.

One problem--and it's a big one--is that Dora's character lacks any distinguishing charm, wit, intelligence, or strength. In these sexually egalitarian and rather stern, unforgiving times, it is hard to work up much sympathy for a woman who appears to rely completely on male love and attention for fulfillment. Dora, with her why-did-they-leave-me laments about her former lovers, seems like a character taken from the pages of Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, and similar sob-sister tomes. She's incapable of getting up and going to work in the morning simply because no man fully appreciates her inner soul. The trouble is, there's not a lot about her inner soul to appreciate.

Dialogue in The Swan also is underwritten and almost deliberately flat. The speeches lack any particular rhythm--neither the familiar give-and-take of situation comedy or of Neil Simon pastiche, nor the preposterous rantings of characters in absurdist theater. Kevin and Dora's exchanges are very like the prosaic arguments about money and marriage that average people have (though, granted, a human who acts like a swan is listening to them). In short, they are boring.

Dora does change, quite suddenly, as Bill draws forth the romanticism and poetry that has hitherto slumbered in her breast. The change is not convincing, however, as there has been nothing to suggest this poetic potential in her. Without warning, she is standing on the sofa, soliloquizing in dithyrambic verse that would make Rod McKuen blush.

Bill, though fairly interesting as a grouchy swan, is not particularly compelling as a human being. We know he's a natural kind of guy, because he keeps repeating the words "woods," "water," and "sky" a lot, but other than that he's a not-too-interesting enigma. It's one more sign of Dora's insipidity that her dream lover turns out in the end to be just another cliched hunk who knows how to tango.

The Swan is proficiently staged in one continuous act of about 90 minutes, with a large number of difficult, deftly executed scene changes. These are accompanied by evocative music, carefully selected by director Jerry Russell to reflect the mood and plot of the play. They include some haunting tunes by banjo virtuoso Stephen Wade, who appeared in Fort Worth last year. Unfortunately, the ethereal and arresting music only underlines how lacking in these qualities is The Swan.

There is good news, however, which is that Stage West, a generally excellent local theater, will be presenting Shaw's Misalliance in coming weeks, and that more Shaw will be on tap in the Metroplex as the Dallas Theater Center will be staging Arms And The Man at about the same time.

Stay tuned.

The Swan runs through February 17 at Stage West. Call (817) 784-9378.

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