Women at war

A battle of ideas sinks Bucket Productions' uneven premiere of Wrens

The program for Bucket Productions' latest show, the Southwest premiere of Anne V. McGravie's Wrens, declares that the troupe is "dedicated to the production of fun, entertaining, watchable theatre. We don't have any social agendas or themes, and we have no pretense of a grand artistic vision." It's a refreshingly earnest manifesto by artists in a medium that is so crowded with ambitious ideas, there's barely enough room for the actors on the stage.

But Wrens is a curious choice to be included under this give-the-people-what-they-want banner. McGravie is a Scottish-born playwright who has skewed her work toward the experiences of women who've been pushed into corners by either history or their own actions. Her seven-character look at the end of World War II through the eyes of WRNS (Women's Royal Naval Service) members, who were essentially officers' secretaries and assistants, percolates with observations about a woman's professional vs. private life in the context of mid-century patriotism--that is, men are allowed to sacrifice everything for country, whereas women are asked to keep a portion of themselves reserved for these men, or their children, or their parents and siblings, if they're unmarried. Throw in a subplot that blossoms into the plot about a young woman imperiled by the decision to abort a child she was intimidated into conceiving, and you have a couple of mighty powerful social themes that might be "watchable," but are hardly, in the last analysis, "entertaining" and "fun."

Director Jason T. Rice has chosen an unmediated, almost voyeuristic approach into the lives of these seven women, who are huddled together in concrete and tin barracks temporarily constructed in Scotland's Orkney Islands. There is almost no music, no lighting effects, and no real drama until the second act, when things get a little too dramatic, thanks to a crisis that seems shoehorned into the proceedings as a device to force these women to confront their lives and their enforced friendships in a way that the artificial environment created by the Royal Navy never would have. The material here is too issue-laden to allow the kind of realism that Rice grafts onto it. Although almost everyone in this female septet has a shining moment or two, the final effect of Wrens is like drinking one cup of lukewarm, unsweetened tea after another. As if to compensate, the last few cups are laced with so much cream and sugar that your dulled palate simply feels overwhelmed.

The play begins on the eve of the expected announcement on VE Day (May 7, 1945), and ends the night after that announcement is made official. We spend most of the first act getting to know the various "Wrens," who are greeting the close of what has been, for some of them, a six-year interruption in their lives. The unofficial den mother is Gwyneth (Carol Blankenship), who's allowed to ignore the lonely post-war domestic fate that awaits her by focusing on the skirmishes that ignite between her unofficial charges. The co-mom of the brood is Jenny (E. Amber Singleton), a worrier who isn't afraid of asserting her conservative Christian views on unsanctioned sexual relations in the army (since men get lonely away from their wives and can't help it, women are to blame) yet still manages to pony up the nurturing when needed. Under their watch are Doris (Shonda K. Purvis), a journal keeper with socialist tendencies; Cynthia (Gay Smith), a cynical woman, emotionally bottled-up and apprehensive about making connections; Meg (Lissa Creolla), a brash 17-year-old orphan who utters the play's best line ("She's just jealous because she doesn't have my pinup-girl personality"); and Dawn (Teresa Heidt), the anxious, spoiled rich girl who becomes pregnant by a man who's not her boyfriend. (I swear, I'm not disclosing a surprise confession: Heidt might as well wear a neon sign that says "Knocked Up" 10 minutes into her dialogue).

Wait, I forgot about the seventh Wren, Chelsea (Pamela J. Schamberger), a young woman who doesn't speak a word until the very end of the first act, who smokes cigarettes the instant her barracks-mates leave, and whose spectral presence bodes ominously for another character's fate. I wouldn't characterize her last-minute function as a plot catalyst; the phrase "last minute function" works just fine to describe her role in this play. A rather portentous addition is an unseen island woman who periodically drags a stick along the corrugated tin sides of the barracks, protesting the Wrens' presence on her rural island.

One technical note about the performance I saw: Because Wrens, at least as staged here, is two acts of almost uninterrupted, unadorned dialogue, it would be advisable to shut the windows in front of the box where the sound and light guys keep vigil...especially if they're going to conduct a steady, whispered conversation during the first half of the first act. Because the setting is so intimate, and because the pace and tone are hushed and even dour, the slightest sound from anywhere but the stage can compete with the actors.

The women do provide a smattering of warm, funny, introspective moments. Carol Blankenship is simply superb as the wryly maternal Gwyneth, whose given to wonder "where are our medals?" both for their participation in the war and for their agonizing decisions about how to handle the pregnant Dawn's fate. She also manages an absolutely stunning British accent (noted with approval by a British audience member during intermission). E. Amber Singleton as the aggressively religious Jenny is a convincing, tight knot of conflicted feelings, wanting to condemn and console at the same time. Lissa Creolla as the bratty, nosy Meg is a charmer, but she pushes the vowels of her Scottish accent unevenly for comic emphasis. Still, the generally good quality of the accents here can be proven by the presence of two gen-you-whine British actresses, Teresa Heidt and Gay Smith, who don't throw the vocal training of their co-actors into sharp relief.

Wrens is so naturalistic, so utterly stripped of even the slightest theatrical bauble, that the faults of the script seem larger, the performances overly chatty and sharply divided between the first act's casual bickering and the second's grand philosophical conflicts. These Wrens keep a small supply of stolen or black-market-bought rationed items--tea, sugar, biscuits, cigarettes--that they help themselves to as a means of relieving the pressure of their austere Scottish island location. Well into the performance, I began to long for a little theatrical contraband myself to get some relief from this claustrophobic, ascetic saga of small lives making big sacrifices.

Wrens runs through August 29. Call (214) 528-5725.

Banter
Writer-director Pete Gooch was a member of a comedy troupe called Throbbing Spatula before he detoured into playwriting. He has found the kind of backing most Texas playwrights only dream of: a full-fledged artistic association with one drama company. Fort Worth's Hip Pocket Theater has produced all four of Gooch's scripts, including his latest, Fatty in Babylon, a fact- and fantasy-laced account of the disgraced silent-film heavyweight Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

"People have pointed out to me that most of my plays have cinematic themes," Gooch says, referring to his first, 1994's Ed Wood bio Hubcaps Afire Over Hollywood, and his second, the film noir homage Swank City. "But the film stuff is incidental to me. What I'm interested in is the role of the artist in a particular culture, and how there can be a gap between where the artists think they are and where the culture has placed them."

The silent-film culture placed Roscoe Arbuckle (played by Jamie Jamison in the Hip Pocket show) to unprecedented heights of popularity late in the second decade of the 20th century. As a fearlessly slapstick comic actor, Arbuckle rose from a bit player drawing $3 a day at Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios to a star securing a million a year and artistic control over his movies even Chaplin didn't enjoy.

It all came crashing down in 1921 when a young actress wannabe (played by Karyn Lush) died of peritonitis from previous bladder problems shortly after an altercation in Arbuckle's bedroom during a drunken Hollywood party. The rumors began to fly that she had died from injuries sustained after being sexually assaulted by Fatty. Four trials, angry anti-Arbuckle public protests, and reams of scathing publicity by William Randolph Hearst later, Arbuckle was acquitted but banished from films forever.

"I come from a working-class background," Gooch says. "And I'm fascinated by characters who also come from there, then get the chance to rise from it, but lose a part of themselves in the process. Fatty had been very poor and always very conscious of his weight, so he got drunk and rowdy to compensate for it. That's what made him a success, but in the end, he got too successful and was put back in his place.

"You have to remember that in the early film days, most actors didn't even have their names listed in the credits. I believe there was a sentiment by the industry that Fatty had gotten--pardon me--too big for the studio."

Fatty in Babylon is framed by scenes showing silent film pioneer D.W. Griffith shooting the "Feast of Balthazar in Babylon" segment from Intolerance. Although unrelated to Fatty's career, it's a famous movie fantasy sequence Gooch found appropriate.

"Griffith's Babylon was made of two-by-fours," says Gooch. "It's a phony, just a movie set. Yet it's the kind of world that became more real to Fatty than the one he came from."

Fatty in Babylon runs through August 30. Call (817) 246-9775.

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