The lesbian brain

Great acting saves Echo Theatre's Body from becoming a short course on feminist studies

"All women who've wanted to break out of the prison of consciousness...are strange monsters," declared travel writer and poet May Sarton, "who've renounced the treasure of their silence for a curious, devouring pleasure." She goes on to name Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, and Sappho as examples, so we know she's referring to women writers. Well, guess what, Ms. Sarton. Being a young male critic in a roomful of older male family members--most of whom have commonsense jobs--and trying to explain exactly what it is you do, can make you feel like Frankenstein shambling through the countryside for a handout too. Women, and men for that matter, who have devoted their energies to breaking out of their consciousness for the devouring pleasure of big ideas have mutated into a shape wrought by this curious dependency. And it doesn't always play well with the folks back home or that first date sitting across the candlelit restaurant table.

This thought--and May Sarton's lyric line--whispered in my mind as I attended Echo Theatre's pristine production of Claire Chafee's feminist meditation Why We Have a Body. As time goes on and friends of both genders and every personality type get older, it seems more and more obvious from this corner that men and women are more alike than different. Yet because sham authors are out there making beaucoup bucks off field guides to Mars and Venus, it doesn't look as if there are many national advocates ready to trumpet this proposition. Why We Have a Body, which sometimes sails far out into the ozone, deals with quotidian issues like the desire to be desired, the difficulty (maybe even inability) to shed old family roles in adulthood, the wrenching discovery of previously unexpected emotions, and the struggle to accept a body that the social order condemns. So is being an insecure, family-entangled, out-of-shape individual who's uncertain how priorities will change an exclusively female fate? I think not.

Why We Have a Body breaks out of the playwright's consciousness as well as the conception of naturalistic comedy-drama with its deliberately imagistic language, its long monologues mixed with memory and imagination, and its lack of a clear resolution for its characters. These pursuits are laudable, the kind of stuff we flee into the theater seeking when life becomes mundane or unbearably linear, but they are just pitchers into which the playwright must drain the syrup of raw experience. The source of this syrup is the characters, and us, since we're watching the characters to find ourselves. But I heard more truisms than truths coming from female roles that were recognizable--but only after much squinting. Never fear. Director Pam Myers-Morgan and her expert cast are full of the right juices. They ensure audiences will get their fingers sticky with the sweet and sour sauce that seems missing from Claire Chafee's recipe on paper.

Chafee's play begins with a series of monologues that introduces the characters sort of the way Faulkner did in As I Lay Dying, dropping us chapter by chapter into the raging stream of their consciousness and leaving us to infer their importance to each other. Lili (Joanna Schellenberg) is a private detective who specializes in helping women track down missing husbands and is sister to Mary (Kelly Thomas), who specializes in knocking over 7-Elevens and studying Joan of Arc and Sylvia Plath for lifestyle hints. Lili is constantly bailing her mentally unstable sister out of trouble, but doesn't listen to the wise little hints (if only by example, crime notwithstanding) Mary drops about the ways in which Lili can begin to lift the heavy lid of the box in which she feels trapped. In part, she and Mary are yearning for the return of their errant mother Eleanor (Linda Comess), a pith-helmeted adventurer who, even while pregnant with her daughters, was "looking out across the desert dreaming of transportation." But Mary also is a private investigator who wants finally to be investigated, to be "the mystery." She hooks up on an airplane with Renee (Linda Marie Ford), an unhappily married woman who begins a tango of hesitance and smoldering attraction with her.

These are the framework situations, the window boxes inside which sprout various comic and wistful observations about family bonds, the search for love, and the struggle to accept an unconventional self in a conventional world. There are no cheerleader choruses here, and the author, to her credit, states in a program note that she is representing nobody's lesbian brain "but my own." Still, sapphic sisters and their brethren are likely to recognize certain hilarious brainwaves in this play, like psycho Mary's habit of playing therapy tapes for comfort while she's on the lam, a voice loop endlessly repeating questions like: "How did that make you feel? Is there a pattern here?" or a frightened Renee circling around the bed she will soon share with Lili, weaving memories and needs into one big, nervous, formal presentation instead of trusting the moment and diving head-first into the sack.

Stumbling Renee and loose cannon Mary seem to be the most breathing, bleeding characters on stage here, and I don't fault the actresses who play Lili and Eleanor. Why We Have a Body sometimes leans too much on carefully composed lyrical observation and not enough on the observers who, like Lili and Eleanor in their most indistinct moments, look like holograms programmed to strike the same jerky poses, while another woman's voice comes out of their mouths, reading poetry books on tape. There is often no convincing circumstance to trigger their conflicted emotions, except the author's expediency. Eleanor's exotic wanderlust is an excuse to have her daughters yearn for someone we learn not a whit about, while Lili's P.I. gig is picked up a couple of times but never carried anywhere. The parade of feminist icon references--Plath, Joan of Arc, Ophelia, Harriet the Spy, Margaret Mead--begins to collect like sediment toward the end of the play, when it seems that fewer, more vigorously pursued allusions would have made the name-dropping seem like more than the syllabus in a Comparative Feminist Culture class taught by Katie Roiphe.

These quibbles float to the surface a while after you've seen Echo's production, which upon first viewing has a visceral kick to it that keeps you laughing and engaged and following these characters around, even if you finally understand the ultimate destination is perambulation. Pam Myers-Morgan, who directed Susan Sontag's similarly amorphous script Alice in Bed for Wingspan Theatre, has impressed me once again with her ability to carve her actors' performances into the human shapes the author didn't necessarily write. She has reversed stage and audience space at the Bath House Cultural Center and arranged her actors effectively into every nook and cranny of the small stage. Again, Jo Schellenberg and Linda Comess seem to me shortchanged by roles that feel like devices, but they acquit themselves marvelously, especially Comess, who has an Estelle Parsons-like ability to mix archness and lunacy. Schellenberg, meanwhile, makes distraction sexy. Linda Marie Ford uses nervous laughter well in the early flirtation and seduction scenes with Schellenberg, and the pair of them share a chemistry you can taste and smell. The role of Mary was clearly written as the play's tour de force, a move that normally makes me look for any excuse to dislike the character. Kelly Thomas really does tour Mary forcefully, but with enough thoughtful comic timing, especially in her conversations with sister Lili, that we can share breathing room with her. Indeed, Echo's entire cast manages to take great bracing lungfuls of Claire Chafee's language without drifting away on the high from that oxygen and helium cocktail.

Why We Have a Body runs through January 30. Call (214) 824-7169.

Banter
Teatro Dallas artistic director Cora Cardona explains her philosophy toward life and art--one she wishes all people would adopt--as a little gustatory fable she herself experienced.

"I was traveling in Ecuador with two Dallas actors," she says, "and I ordered a dish that was very common in the pre-Hispanic era. Back then, the people ate reptiles, insects, whatever. What I ordered was an animal called cui about this big"--she spreads two hands out to the size of a poodle--"and it still had"--again with her hands, she swoops whiskers out from her cheeks, wrinkles up her nose, and juts her two front teeth out. "The other actors wouldn't touch it. And at first, for me, it was very intense. But it tasted delicious. Finally, they had enough to drink to try it. You have to try everything."

Teatro's Sixth Annual International Theater Festival will be a lot easier to digest than a giant rodent, but Cora invokes this image because she hopes people will be adventurous--especially non-Spanish speakers. The Festival's first offering is Rincón Oscuro, a very physical tale of a married couple beset by shifting values, confusing gender roles, and high technology in the '90s. Acclaimed troupe Teatro Del Norte from Asturias, Spain, will perform Etelvino Vazquez's script. Yes, it's all in Spanish, but the intensely disciplined movement and loud visuals tell the tale to those who don't talk the talk.

"'Theatriste' is a new word being bandied about in Latin America," Cardona says. "It refers to individual artists who come up with their own techniques after studying the masters in groups and the past rituals of their cultures. It's sort of anthropological theater, but also modern. The influence of a very hot director who emphasizes intense physical training, Eugenio Barba, hangs over this production."

As far as the November fire that cost Teatro Dallas more than $50,000 in lost equipment, Cardona is still saddened but grateful that North Dallas High School, built in the '20s, has offered them a temporary home. The school auditorium's technical setup is, in fact, mostly superior to the Commerce stage--the flying space, or extensive area above the stage that allows whole sets and props to be raised and lowered, reflects an era of bigger, more ambitious productions. And since Dallas audiences are accustomed to seeing professional theater in basements, churches, lofts, warehouses, and even bakeries, surely a fully equipped high school isn't too much of a leap. Still, Teatro continues seeking a more permanent space. As Cardona has put it before: "If I have to go out and build a theater with my own two hands, I will."

Cardona has never been afraid to do the dirty work of theater business. Let's hope a philanthropist interested in controversial theater steps in so she doesn't get splinters in her hands from hauling plywood.

Rincon Oscuro opens the International Festival January 29 and 30, 8:15 p.m. Call (214) 303-1833.

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