Women on the verge

When I first noted that Kitchen Dog Theater's current production, composed of two one-acts and called Women's Voices, included the work of a man, I was a little baffled. I mean, if Kitchen Dog wanted to give the evening that kind of feminist--or at least feminine--weight, couldn't it have found two women authors? And when I sat down to watch The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman and Straight Ahead by Charles Tidler at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary (Kitchen Dog's swank new home), I still wondered what brought these two pieces together.

Fortunately, the dramaturge clears it all up in the program notes: "Beyond the rhetoric of the external issues in the ongoing struggle to acknowledge and preserve the rights of women in any social context lies the truth of the psychological result, where psyche confronts physiology, and a woman's mind and body are symbiotically supposed as the feminine self..."

Oh. I see.
Feminist curmudgeon that I am, I still think Kitchen Dog should've used women authors exclusively (and included one more piece) to live up to its billing. But in the same breath I have to get over myself, because Gwen Templeton's performance of Charlie Tidler's play was sensual and smoldering, funny and pained. His work, and her interpretation of it, allowed the evening to soar.

Women's Voices begins with Sally Nystuen as "John's wife" in an adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper, an early work of Charlotte Gilman, a 19th-century feminist. It opens with Nystuen perched at the edge of a trunk, talking to the audience as if she were writing in her journal. She is wearing the most beautiful period dress that is every color green imaginable. Her mental deterioration is reflected in her slow but urgent stripping down to cotton pantalets, as if she can no longer breathe with her clothes on. (Kudos to costume designer Leila Heise.)

The character has been forbidden to write by her physician husband because he is convinced it has led to her festering hysteria. Instead, the would-be writer goes slowly mad in an upstairs room of their vacation home, wildly and sometimes humorously obsessing over the gruesome yellow wallpaper. Soon she is scraping it off with her own nails.

What is it about women and wallpaper? Clawing at it with long fingernails is definitely a primary catharsis for women in psychic distress. (Remember Meryl Streep in the film Plenty?) Putting up pretty wallpaper becomes an important part of maintaining home and hearth. For some, it has to be a William Morris print to show off taste and status. But then the print begins to move and speak--then and only then is the entrapment complete.

Nystuen does a solid job with this difficult, physically taxing piece, which is directed by Tina Parker. The actor has a lovely, controlled physicality. She is suitably restrained, even when thrashing about in her underwear. (There is a frantic but refined way of losing control of your mind and body, and that's the way this character would do it.) Yet Nystuen also seems a tad detached. We are all aware she is doing a solid, competent job with this material, and so is she. Somehow I never feel she is completely lost in the part.

Then again she is never given the opportunity. Just as things begin to build, there is a blackout, and she strikes a stagey, representative pose, almost like a koan, in the dark. (Each is accompanied by the sick, warped music of a broken music box, which couldn't be more annoying.) Each of these interrupts her dramatic flow. This could be a kinetic, forceful piece, but it doesn't quite make it.

What is missing in The Yellow Wallpaper is driven home by the pungency of Straight Ahead. Gwen Templeton has found the gestalt in her role: she is so much more than the sum of her lines, her expressions, and stance.

Templeton plays Luisa Potter, a 24-year-old woman getting a picnic together for "her men": her father, her lover, and it seems, her ex-husband. As she waits patiently for them to appear from beneath a truck somewhere, she croons for the restive baby inside her and dreams of stardom as a torch singer on the radio.

It is August 1945, the day the United States bombed Nagasaki.
"I spent the afternoon over a hot stove fixing a meal for a bunch of men who ain't showed up," Lou says. "Fried chicken. I'll name my baby 'Little Nagasaki.'"

Each time Lou remembers the bleakness of her situation--mother-to-be of a bastard child, with a father who abuses her--she transforms herself into a famous singer. She takes on an announcer's voice: "Tell the folks out there a little bit about yourself, Lou."

Breathily, she answers, "I'm five feet two, eyes of blue...or at least that's what it says on this card." (After each joke, canned laughter fills the theater.)

When Templeton pours on a song like "Give me a light from your cigarette" ("And I'll try to forget / Each minute I loved you is a week to forget..."), she gives a powerful performance, allowing the audience to laugh and enjoy her before it bears her heavy heart again.

Luisa Potter is certainly a breakthrough role for Templeton. My only problem with Straight Ahead is its ending. Suddenly Luisa has to explain that Mike, her ex, isn't out in the field--and isn't even her ex. He died in the army, driving a truck. "All I got back was dog-tags." Lines like that after the lilting beauty of much of the script make you grimace. And last-minute explanations like "I'm sorry I lied and made you up tonight" confuse the audience. But Straight Ahead is mostly a beautifully written, intimate vignette, one that isn't easily forgotten.

The Dallas Children's Theatre is currently staging A Woman Called Truth, a tribute to the activist and former slave Sojourner Truth. The hour-long work features some lovely spiritual and gospel music, an impressive set, and an important tale. Catherine Whiteman makes for a radiant Truth, and members of the ensemble, particularly Michael Malizia, perform a number of roles well.

But A Woman Called Truth, written by Sandra Fenichel Asher and directed by Ptosha Storey-Jones, is a complicated story that travels right over most kids' heads. A child would have to be pretty sophisticated to follow Sojourner's legal battles in trying to recover her son, who has been sold to a Southerner after slavery was deemed illegal in the North. Perhaps an introduction would help, or some narration. In any case, the play starts out strong, then gets reduced to legalese and bogs down, with actors chewing on their lines.

If your 10-year-old can follow an episode of "Law and Order" on television, she'll understand A Woman Called Truth. If not, you may want to see the show and enjoy the music and talk about its significance later (it's only an hour). But don't bring the wee little ones. They'll balk.

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Nora Fitzgerald