By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The actors in Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes or The Green Pill, now playing at The MAC, are made up to look like human marionettes. They move with deliberate, jerky gestures, as if their limbs are manipulated by invisible strings. Their faces are painted chalky white, cheeks circled with bright red rouge. The play is a beautiful live-action puppet show that unfolds against a surreal setting of deep blue and red Art Nouveau swoops and swirls.
Our Endeavors Theater Collective's Southwest premiere of the absurdist work by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, translated by Daniel Gerould, is a riot of color, sound, light, music and movement. Within the production are elements of Cirque du Soleil, Nosferatu, Cabaret, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eyes Wide Shutand Pee-Wee's Playhouse. The two-hour show has been meticulously choreographed by director Scott Osborne and movement director Gary Minyard, and designed to the nth degree by scenic artist Russell Parkman, costumer Patrick Johnson, lighting designer Tristan Decker and hair and makeup designer Ryan Matthieu Smith.
It all looks perfectly delicious. Then they start talking. Dainty Shapes, written in the early 1900s, would be a fascinating script if only there weren't so many words in it. "Everything that more or less is known is now over, and yet it seems to me I have discovered something totally new. Something that can only be tested by the two of us,'' says Pandeus Clavercourse (played by Jeffrey Schmidt), one of three main characters. "Pandi" declares himself "the incarnation of willpower" and then launches into a speech about "Einstein's two possible worlds." He seems to be in a triangular battle of souls and wills with two other primary characters, the younger man, Tarquinius Flirtius-Umbilicus (Matthew Hutchens), and a riding-crop-carrying dominatrix, Sophia Kremlinska of the Abencerages (Lydia Mackay).
Laced into red spike-heeled boots, fishnets, ruffled red hot pants and outrageous combinations of leather, feathers, monkey fur, sequins and lace, Sophia is the embodiment of all temptation. She keeps trying to lure young Tarquinius up to the "sloth room," while Pandi works to convince the young man to let him "penetrate him with knowledge."
Or something like that. The dialogue in Dainty Shapes can be nearly impenetrable, going beyond absurdism into the oblique and obtuse. At times the characters speak in French. And they say things like "My ganglions are bursting with inexpressible thought."
Best just to plug up the ear holes and watch the spectacle as if it were some artsy foreign film without subtitles. And there's plenty to watch. There is no more luscious actress than Mackay strutting any Dallas stage right now. From her wildly comic entrance, surrounded by "Mandelbaums," a troupe of 10 human-sized puppets with mouths in a permanent "oh," Mackay is a fetishist's dream. Schmidt, with whatever nonsense his character is babbling, manages to combine physical elements of Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin and The Producers'Dick Shawn (doing Springtime for Hitler) into his very funny performance.
On some lofty philosophical level, Dainty Shapes blasts away at the decadence of the bourgeoisie. That must be what all the talking is about. Better not to think about it too hard, however. Don't want any bursting ganglions.
Goole questions each member of the family about their relationships to a down-and-out young woman named Eva Smith, who has taken her life by swallowing disinfectant. Father Arthur (Gary Moody), it turns out, had fired the woman from his factory two years earlier when she asked for a raise on her pitiful salary. Daughter Sheila (Laura Bailey) had complained about the girl's work in a local dress shop and caused her to lose that job, too. Sheila's fiance, Gerald (Bryan T. Donovan), had had an affair with her. Mother Sybil (Kerry Cole) had turned her away from a local charity when she turned up pregnant and asking for assistance.
Over three long acts, An Inspector Calls dissects the high crimes and misdemeanors committed by the selfish, social-climbing Birlings toward the tragic young woman. Inspector Goole acts as prosecutor and judge, putting each character in the witness box to sweat out their confessions. Pretty standard stuff. Very rote Murder, She Wrote.
But all is not what it seems. Act 1 takes place in 1912, evident in the clothes and manners and in Arthur Birling's mentions of the newly unsinkable liner Titanic. But when the lights come up on Act 2, it's the same evening, same characters, but now they're dressed circa 1950. No explanation for the time travel. Act 3 takes place in contemporary dress, again continuing the same night in the plot line. Toward the end of the play, as the characters find their world crumbling around them (ah, the bomb site symbolism), they come down from the lofty living room and stand closer to the audience, as if they've stepped out of the past to teach us all some important lesson.
An Inspector Calls might make a bigger impact were the performances stronger and the direction more interesting. All the actors struggle with their British accents. Laura Bailey as Sheila loses that battle all the way around. And why does the inspector, who presumably comes from a working-class background, use the same accent as the upper-crust Birlings?
The actors also stay stationary too much of the time. They have that enormous set around them but barely use more than a few square feet of space where the living room is located. Too often the actors are positioned in that weakest of all possible blocking choices, the straight line from stage left to stage right.
Other weird little touches prove distracting. Two raggedy urchins (Jimmy Ambrose, Madeleine Crenshaw) crawl out from under the floorboards now and then and watch the action--more symbolism, perhaps, however annoying. And when Act 3 presents the characters in what is presumably modern dress, why is Gerald wearing a Nehru jacket? Or is that a priest's collar? And it's jarring when he pulls out that cell phone.
The beginning and end of each act of An Inspector Calls is punctuated by the loud rumbling of a locomotive engine. That's the perfect sound effect for a production whose train never really leaves the station.