Congratulate artistic director Gretchen Swen and her Extra Virgin Performance Cooperative, which turns 3 years old this month. Toast her not only for surviving this long in a local theater scene paralyzed by crushing audience indifference, but also for refusing to trade her integrity in the bargain.
Case in point: the latest Extra Virgin project, The Bargain, which is the final chapter in a '95-'96 trilogy of works based upon the 500-year-old Faust legend. Bargains--and our attempts to avoid their consequences--have been the troupe's obsession through a marathon production of Goethe's original, unexpurgated Faust script (the first faithful Texas theatrical version in anyone's memory), and a new play by Dalton James about AIDS and morality in the face of mortality called Malignant Redemption.
The Bargain is in some ways the lightest and most straightforward of the three pieces, and also the most daring. Writer-director-choreographer Swen and sometime musical collaborator John Schweikhard have cast aside the luxury of metaphor in this clean, uncluttered look at an individual who sells a big part of her soul for a very small price. There's no dry ice or dramatic lighting, no extended visions of heaven-on-earth decadence or consequent hell, and not even a very clear sense of imminent personal catastrophe. There is one confused sculptor named Maggie (Sara Rankin-Weeks) who must confront the boundaries of her own artistic integrity as represented by two very different men.
The waspish Herb (Randy Pearlman) is a condescending ass disguised as an esteemed art patron who wanders into a grad-student show by Maggie to dazzle her with seasoned disdain. Herb offers her barbed refinement, lavish restaurant meals, and access to galleries which had previously ignored her. He also wants to control her every move.
Lanky, dreamy Blaze (Shawn Harden) is the alternative, an artist and curator given to smashing artwork which disappoints him. Initially repulsed by Maggie's "connection" to professional art, he soon falls in love with the natural curves of her sculpture, which he likens to seashells and other natural formations. He desperately wants to see her lose control--and if possible, all over his fine self.
The romantic dilemma that perplexes Maggie is triggered by a mysterious stranger named Lucy (Liz Mikel). Maggie and Lucy share an elliptical one-night stand, whereupon the whiskey-throated, perpetually amused Lucy reveals she is the "Lucifer, Beelzebub, Queen of the Night" that so many legends discuss. She appears in this play not so much as a wicked temptress, but to oversee Maggie's personal journey from heartbreak to independence.
Perhaps you've already staged a mental production of The Bargain based on the previous four paragraphs. Chances are your version won't be any better (or any worse) than what Gretchen Swen and John Schweikhard have constructed--a sometimes tender, musical time-waster that's haunted from almost the first scene by its own inevitable conclusion.
In fact, no matter which man (read "way of life") Maggie chooses--and her choice is depressingly obvious from the play's constant upward trajectory--we cannot help but feel she struck "the bargain" that serves as both the title of the play and its most reprehensible symbol. Blaze is supposed to represent unpredictable animal creativity, but despite occasional flashes of self-deprecating wit, he talks as good a game as the shallow, fey Herb. Indeed, although Gretchen Swen acknowledges no movie inspiration in the program notes for The Bargain, the character of Herb borrows heavily from Addison DeWitt in the 1950 backstage classic All About Eve. Maybe it's just the sinister-sister edge placed on the dialogue by Randy Pearlman, but in every scene, he threatens Maggie/Eve with the same overarching venom that won George Sanders an Oscar.
Then there's the question of Lucy, and the songs written with her in mind. Writer-director Swen makes the double mistake of writing a bland, subordinate "Lucifer" and then casting an actress with the presence and vocal chops of a Broadway belter. As Lucy, Liz Mikel is one of the play's disjointed pleasures, not least because she's a sultry interpreter who sharpens the Swen-Schweikhard libretto with blues-mama technique. But because playwright Gretchen Swen steers away from Christopher Marlowe's Faust-in-hellfire vision toward Goethe's more humanistic rendering of the legend, the Satan/Mephistopheles role is ambiguous. Addressing yet compounding each unanswered question about her character with her expansive delivery, actress-singer Mikel runs full-throttle for a role that's less than half-written.
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The strongest element in The Bargain is John Schweikhard's score, which takes the Faustian theme and distills it through a series of clever, hard-edged, sometimes sorrowful ditties. The modest bits of choreography that Gretchen Swen inserts usually distract, though, because each of the actors possesses an extensive musical-theater background that spotlights the lyrical strength of the tunes even more. As Maggie, Sara Rankin-Weeks is a curly haired, charming wisp of a woman with a lovely lilt to her voice and an emotional fluidity that doesn't trample the pace. She's equally effective as a starving artist enthralled with the orgiastic virtues of a restaurant meal and as a "kept," comfortable woman who mourns that her soul has "fallen through the cracks."
Overall, the pleasures in The Bargain must be gathered where they lie, scattered across the flat landscape of Gretchen Swen's insubstantial script. She has a nice ear for dialogue--managing to be literary but avoiding preciousness--yet in trying to explore the subtleties of an individual's internal struggle, she loses sight of her themes again and again. As a director, Swen fails to utilize the intriguingly simple black-box space at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, shoving actors into a tight corner or allowing them to sweep across the middle of the floor without much purpose.
The longer you think about its themes of personal integrity versus selling out, the more naive The Bargain becomes. Certainly, we're living in a cynical age when people who refuse to go for the buck are ridiculed. A toast to Swen for putting these issues back in the moral context they deserve. But the idea that being a dirt-poor, unappreciated artist is its own reward is presented sans the scrutiny that Swen applies to life as a rich, prostituted talent. The Bargain strives to make a point about the consequences of a decision many people would never think twice about, then shortchanges us with a blinkered viewpoint.
The Bargain runs through April 28 at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. Call 871-