FIT Starts

On opening night of 2001's Festival of Independent Theatres, I'm not sure that the one-act duo being performed was well-served when paired together, although a festival official informed me that it was merely an (un)lucky draw. Two theater companies performed superior usurpations of narrative and character that, witnessed back to back, drained each other of a bit of their potential impact.

Our Endeavors rang in the festival with What Happened: A Five-Act Play, penned by a woman whom the critic Matthew Standler called "the first writer to be both influential and unread." Gertrude Stein has been described as many things--patriotic to the point of conservatism (she mistrusted FDR's New Deal as sticky Socialism), a lesbian prankster with patriarchal language, the most important single cultivator of the Modernist sensibility in art--but after seeing director-designer Scott Osborne's twirling, swirling, cheekily cheerful take on Stein, I finally understood the overriding impression that her work gave me in college. The woman's a shameless flirt--not in a predatory way but in that lost-art sense of teasing people (her readers) from the sheer pleasure of their company.

What Happened: A Five-Act Play was, as described by Stein, an attempt to describe the "essence" of what transpired at a birthday party without listing the events or the participants. Our Endeavors has imposed, by costume and implication rather than name, a roster of 1920s salon guests onto the chunks of nonsensical text. "Nobody wounded, nobody flourishing, nobody sensible" is perhaps the best description of this romp full of black turbans, martini glasses and a gilt-framed screen that flashes scraps of Dadaist images. Rachel Eiland-Hall exudes a dykey imperiousness (that's a good thing) with an undercurrent of playground impishness as Mama Stein, whose bedroom is filled with some of her most famous compatriots--Mark Farr as a rifle-toting Hemingway, David Lozano a mascaraed and bereted Picasso and Scott Latham as Baby Toklas in a slinky black party dress that might've been designed by Edward Gorey. You could tell that the near-sold-out opening-night crowd, snickering here and there, was a bit taken aback by this assault of subconscious conversational exchanges and choreographer Jennifer Weddel's movements that were somewhere between ballet and calisthenics. Were we really supposed to laugh at some of the 20th century's foremost innovators doing pratfalls in and out of Stein's giant bed? Yeah, we were. Their first impulses, stifled, were correct; the sense of unstoppable invention that shot in rays from the tiny Bath House stage was a gorgeous celebration. The rendering by Osborne and his cast and crew deserved laughter of the rarest kind these days--uncynical, appreciative, delighted.

Much more somber, slightly more linear, and almost as difficult were three short plays from Erik Ehn's cycle of Saint Plays, staged by Core Performance Manufactory. We were still a little dizzy from Our Endeavors' merry-go-round, which meant adjusting our faculties to the equally weird but subtler pleasures offered by director Elizabeth Ware and her cast took some time. With foley artist Kim Corbet providing everything from wind noises to the voice of the pope, the lives of three Catholic saints unfolded on a near bare stage in circumstances that shook up time and place. Wholly Joan's was, of course, about Joan of Arc. Deanna Deck, "at the center of sounds and visions" and orbiting an eerie puddle of light on the black floor that slowly formed into a red heart, erred on the fragile and frightened side of this woman warrior and turned in a poignantly accessible performance of an icon in minutes' time. 16670 concerned Maximillian Mary Kolbe (Matthew Halteman), lover of mathematics and music and a martyr when he died to save another in a Nazi concentration camp. Halteman made us all feel like hopeless sinners (and that's a compliment) when, in typical crazy-saint fervor, he declared his reason for the sacrifice--"I pray that my love will be without limits"--and was still dissatisfied with the singularity of the gesture. Cindy Beall narrated The Freak, in which Claire Wyn Wladis in Catholic schoolgirl outfit played Gunna, a child born with membranous protrusions from her back that double nicely as wings. She, too, makes a sacrifice, although it's more correct to say that she's exploited, when George the Dragonslayer (Joe Thomas) requests a trophy to falsely prove his valor. He was the one sanctified, but Beall the storyteller tenderly brings Gunna's tale back around, transforming her into the unrecognized patron of children's soaring imagination. It was the loveliest of Core Performance Manufactory's irreverent religiosities.

The queerness of Sunday afternoon's Stay Where You Are, presented by Beardsley Living Theatre, was located not in the shattered language or historical eccentrics speaking anachronistic lines but in a mental terrorist campaign that left you uncertain of who among four onstage characters was disturbed and who was faking it. Olwen Wymark's creepy, misanthropic comedy is energized by doubt, that early symptom of the toppling of sanity. Are these two mad strangers in a plot to confuse and humiliate me, or am I just beginning to take leave of my reasoning abilities and enter the horrific world of the psychotic, where my own thoughts can't be reasonably matched with what's transpiring around me? Into this frightful place lands Ellen (Lydia MacKay), a well-intentioned but rather timid young Englishwoman who makes the mistake of helping an infirm Cockney vagabond named Nina (Brenda Galgan) to her filthy, newspaper- and beer-bottle-strewn basement lair. Nina uses both guilt and fear to talk Ellen into fixing her a cup of tea and changing her leg bandage, until the coarse hobo's equally dingy, rumpled companion Taddy (Denny Day) arrives and professes to know more about Ellen's marriage than any stranger would. An aghast Ellen desperately runs through a number of scenarios, which the derelict duo cruelly allows her to believe and then snatch away in gales of scornful laughter. Are Taddy and Nina blackmailers? Private investigators?

Director-designer Michael Galgan's harrowing production has the pitch-perfect helpless protagonist in Lydia Mackay, who is of course the ticketbuyer's stand-in, the door into which all us "normal" people may enter and be tormented by Nina and Taddy. MacKay sends herself through the wringer as Ellen submits to the "lies, games and jokes," trapped by the simple desire to learn why these crude clowns know a few of her darkest secrets. As for Brenda Galgan and Denny Day, you can practically smell them from the back row, which leads me to the panic that may be at the core of Stay Where You Are. At one point, Ellen wonders if she is "one of them," and you get a small epiphany--the revulsion that many of us feel when walking by unwashed, babbling and snoring homeless people often has to do with our fear that we're closer to that kind of abject desperation than we want to admit.

And finally, the most conventional of the grab-bag of FIT shorts I saw last weekend was Lanford Wilson's The Great Nebula in Orion. Wingspan Theatre Company produces the story of two erstwhile college friends, now middle-aged women with divergent versions of success under their designer belts. It has one of those ostentatious titles that keeps you looking out for the approaching theme that allows one of the characters to casually--or grandiloquently--slip the phrase "the great nebula in Orion" into stage conversation. Director Rene Moreno here works with two magnetic performers, which is a good thing because Lanford Wilson has regurgitated a long-since digested situation: career woman and family woman secretly covet what each other has. Actually, it's a bit more complicated than that. Sheilah Landahl as Louise, a feted designer with an apartment overlooking Central Park, admits in one of the funnier moments that she only says she envies proud mother Carrie (Mary Anna Austin) because it sounds good. This pair from the class of 1960 have met accidentally in Bergdorf's after a six-year estrangement, and over a bottle of brandy--alcohol being a playwright's most relied-upon lubricator of revelations and long-hidden resentments--discuss their classmates, their lovers, their achievements. The first half of The Great Nebula in Orion is the most entertaining, because Carrie and Louise break from their polite mutual admiration to tell the audience what they really feel. Carrie's family, Louise informs us, was "church-mouse poor but with lineage out the ass." Austin and Landahl know how to keep the bitchery bubbling, but once Wilson cranks up the pathos volume, his characters come to seem less sorrowful than spoiled. They transform from twinkling points of comic light to big balls of gas right in front of us.

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Jimmy Fowler