A mixed bag
Melodrama and Mayhem on
Six Short Plays by Louise Bryant, Alice Gerstenberg & Susan Glaspell
Directed by Christine Mosere and Dan Jacoby
Presented by Woman Seeking… (http://www.womanseeking.org)
The Kraine Theatre,
Equity Showcase (closed
Review by Judd Hollander
Combing through the archives (or dustbin) of playwriting history, Woman Seeking… has unearthed an interesting collection of one-acts, written between 1916 and 1921, by Louise Bryant, Alice Gerstenberg & Susan Glaspell. All containing strong female characters, they provide an interesting look at these playwright's points of view on women's issues and society in general during the period depicted. But in many cases (due to problems in casting, direction or the construct of the play itself) the works reach only a glimmer of their full potential.
This is evident in the first work of the evening, The Game. Written by Bryant, this is the
most anti-war piece in this collection, with more than a few digs at the
establishment and continual mention of the importance of dreamers, poetry and
art. On a dark waterfront, Death (Dan Jacoby) and Life (Vivian Meisner), both dressed in evening finery, have come to play
their game of chance for the lives of two people about to commit suicide.
Uninterested in monarchs or soldiers (or so they say), they’re more concerned
about Youth (Matthew Russell), an
angry young man who is able to end it all because his girlfriend left him for a
man with money; and The Girl (Anna
Malinoski), a famous actress who wants to die because she does not know
Definitely a possibility for a Lifetime TV movie or even a Hallmark Hall of Fame telecast if done right, the two potential lovers are more caricatures than anything else, with Youth continually railing about people not understanding his poetry and The Girl crying that people simply want to possess her rather than love her. This would be interesting if there was some depth to the roles, but both actors have so little to work with, there's nothing for them (or the audience) to grab onto. Jacoby fares much better as the scenery-chewing Death as he urges the two to leave their mortal bodies behind. Meisner has a tough task with her character, but is able to make her believable without being too preachy or imperious while delivering her lines. The play is directed ably, if not all that successfully, by Christine Mosere.
Bryant's star-crossed lover melodrama Patient Griselda also has its share of problems. Jack (Jase Draper), a young man from a prominent family, is expected to marry his long-time sweetheart Celia (Hannah Ingram) and take his proper place in society. But he's madly in love with up-and-coming Russian actress Sasha (Kira Blaskovich) and wants to marry her instead. Sasha loves him very much, but refuses to give up her career, despite Jack's threat to marry Celia and never see Sasha again ("We give up other women once we get married", he tells her). Refusing to believe he can resist her sensual charms (or his own desires) Sasha sends him on his way only to learn, to her sorrow, that his need to "do the right thing" as society sees it is too strong.
The play presents an interesting spin on a traditional story (with the man staying faithful to his wife and his true love urging him to cheat), but the characters presented are not all that interesting. Jack is more of a whiner than anything else and Sasha is too mean-spirited (and one-dimensional) to elicit any sympathy. Additional scenes are really needed here to bring the two into better focus. The strongest character in the play is Celia, who appears towards the end of the show, trying desperately to keep her marriage together and who in her own way becomes the cruelest of all. The direction of the show (by Mosere and Jacoby) is also uneven with each of the two scenes in the story feeling as if they were almost separate plays. Also in the cast are Ann Parker and Susan Atwood.
Bryant goes a different way with many of the same elements, using them to much better effect, in the very involving From Paris to Main Street, which is being billed as a world premiere. While in Paris during World War I, soldier Benjamin Butt (Russell) fell in love with Suzanne (Ingram), a flamboyant Parisian singer, married her and brought her home to the town his family founded. However, the upper crust of Buttsville look upon Suzanne with disapproval, disdaining everything about her from her loud hats and shoes to her upfront attitude about everything from religion to sex. As a result Suzanne faces a daily battle with the town and especially from Benjamin's domineering mother (Rhonda Ayers). As for her husband, he's turning out to be a goodhearted milquetoast who doesn't want to offend anyone. But when the crushing weight of conformity threatens to go too far, Benjamin must make a choice between what he loves and what is safe and comfortable.
Unlike Griselda, here both the writing and direction (by Jacoby) are much stronger, with the three characters fully formed the moment we see them. They also play off each other quite well. Ingram conveys the pathos of a bright bird caught in a drab cage when she just wants to fly. (And feeling the bars closing in on her more and more each day.) Russell is good as the man caught in the middle with Suzanne (and the audience) wishing he could become the man she fell in love with half a world away. Meanwhile, Ayers is dead-on as the staid matriarch of the family; pushing tradition, bloodlines and the status quo for all it's worth.
The final drama of the evening is Glaspell's rather interesting Trifles. Set in a farmhouse, we learn the owner of the property has been killed as he slept with his wife, who is charged with the crime. But the question here is not what happened or whodunit, but why it was done. As the Sheriff (Jacoby - who also directed this piece), the county attorney (Keith Maxwell) and a male neighbor (Draper) search the house for clues, two women (Ayers, Ann Parker) muse about the hardships of farm life and what might have been the motive for the crime.
This story has a lot of possibilities, but it's all but suffocated by the lengthy dialogue. This is especially true in the beginning when we're treated to a seemingly endless explanation of the murder when just simply showing the body and a few other details would have sufficed. Also, while the two women are imbued with the stoicism that comes from decades of hard life on the frontier, the men are treated as little more than an afterthought. While this may have been Glaspell's intention in an effort to show how women and their feelings were thought of in those days, relegating the males to walk-on status (once the initial speechifying is over) and having them come in again and again for a juxtaposition of what the women are saying keeps breaking up the flow of the piece. Indeed, the play might have worked best with just the two women relating the crime and the reason(s) for it. In the end, one is left with an "oh that's interesting" attitude instead of a strong appreciation for people of that era and the conditions they faced.
Things work a bit better in the two of the three lighter pieces. In the comedy/drama Overtones, Gerstenberg presents a cautionary tale about the importance and dangers of matters of the heart, as well as noting there's no such thing as a perfect lifestyle. Harriet (Blaskovich), who married for money over love, is now trapped in a passionless but comfortable marriage. At the same time, her inner self/psyche Hattie (Ayers) rages with emotions, ranging from passion to spite; much of the latter due to the fact they're about to confront Margaret (Atwood), the woman who married the love of Harriet's life. Soon Margaret comes over for tea, bringing along her own inner self, Mattie (Meisner). What follows is a series of overlapping dialogue as Harriet and Margaret make calm and polite talk while their inner selves (neither of whom acknowledges the other) reveals the truth situation facing each woman (both are desperate for different reasons and each needs something from the other). By the time tea is over, both Harriet and Margaret think they have gotten exactly what they wanted; though neither realizes the strings that may come with their deliverance. Thanks to the razor-sharp dialogue, strong direction by Mosere and perfect characterizations all around, Overtones makes for a very funny and sobering offering.
Definitely the funniest show of the evening is the final work, the farcical Fourteen by Gerstenberg. In a tony house during a terrible blizzard, society matron Mrs. Pringle (Nora Hummel) and her daughter Elaine (Malinoski), who's heading for spinsterhood if she's not careful, frantically try to juggle the number of guests at a dinner party, all in the hopes of having the correct number of people at the event. A spoof on society manners where one must seat dinner guests man-woman-man-woman, or where one can't have 13 for dinner, etc., the two find themselves having to deal with uninvited guests, people who suddenly cancel, and being forced to call around to see who they can invite at the last minute. All the while, they're shouting instructions to their hapless maid (Meisner) about changing the number of place settings at the dinner table - and how much food will need to be prepared.
Clad in a gorgeous gown, Hummel steals the show as the decorum-loving woman who is slowly reduced to a gibbering idiot trying to keep the evening from becoming a total disaster. Malinoski is good as the daughter who tries to help but would rather be alone somewhere with a good book. Meisner also acquits herself well as a woman on the receiving end of her employers' tantrums. Director Jacoby starts things off slower than they should be, but soon cranks the speed up to the proper pace of mayhem.
All of the plays presented had elements going for them, but each was hurt by the almost lack of sense of place. The shows are performed in a black box setting with only a few props to denote the time and era, when they really needed the full treatment. A drawing room set would work for most of the plays, with only a few pieces needing to be added or moved about to create the proper feel for such locales as theatrical dressing room or a living room in a farmhouse. (With a little work, such as having an open window or a casino setting, even the first piece would fit into this setting.)
It is nice that Woman Seeking… decided to mount these plays, which hopefully will inspire others to rediscover the works and the women who wrote them. However, one-acts or not, these pieces need to be attempted wholeheartedly or not at all, the result here being an interesting walk through history, but little else that will stay with one once the evening is over.
Sets were done Heidi B. Andersson & Marcia Gilbert, costumes by Mosere, lighting by Jacoby and sound design by Katharina Tapp.
Copyright 2007 by Judd Hollander
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