Altar ego

Unaccustomed to My Name

By Marta Rainer
Directed by Angela Peterson
Midtown International Theatre Festival
Where Eagles Dare Theatre (closed)
Review by Charles Battersby

In Unaccustomed to My Name, Marta Rainer, a young actress with a degree in Russian lit., played Sophie, a young woman with a degree in Russian lit. The shy and timid Sophie must find a date for her friend's wedding, and eventually resorts to passing herself off as "Sonya," a sexy Russian immigrant, in order to attract men. The story has the makings of an episode of I Love Lucy, but playwright Rainer here plays the story seriously, filling her one-woman show with all the depression one might expect from a 19th-century Russian novel.

First-time playwright Rainer stumbles into many of the pitfalls of one-person shows. Endlessly self-referential, and reeking of theatre-as-therapy, Unaccustomed... also relies on one-person-show gimmicks, like one-sided phone calls to get away with having only a single actor on stage. Several scenes involve Rainer playing two characters at once, having dialog with herself, which raises the question of whether this story might have been better told as a standard play rather than a solo piece.

A master's degree in Russian literature isn't necessary to follow the show, but it would help. The script is filled with obscure references to the Russkies, and some familiarity with them might help to appreciate it.

Rainer fared better as an actress than as a writer. Her Russian dialect was excellent, and she used it for several characters. A Valley Girl dialect crept in too, for Sophie's annoying friend (the one who is getting married). Also of note were her characterizations of the men she meets in pick-up bars.

The set was simple, but rather clever, in that the usual theatre boxes were papered in pages from Russian novels, which made them more pleasing to look at than the standard black boxes.

Rainer's costuming needed work. Rainer entered in pajamas and a white bathrobe, which conveyed the main character's depression, but every other character was stuck in the same outfit too, without any visual clues to distinguish them. It would be reasonable to expect that Sophie's sexy alter-ego Sonya would get a costume change (maybe a slinky cocktail dress hidden under the robe), but when the robe was finally taken off, Rainer simply spent the rest of the play in her jammies (and bare feet).

Angela Peterson's direction was not strongly discernible. With little in the way of costume, set, or lighting design, there was no sense of a guiding force behind the show. Blocking was often sprawling, and transitions frequently happened with little indication of a change in time or place. Peterson did have her moments, particularly in the use of nightclub music, to humorously illustrate the difference between Sophie's fantasy life and reality.

Unaccustomed… did have its charms, particularly as a showcase for Rainer's acting talents, and of course it is of note for Eastern-bloc bibliophiles. But the beautifully literate writing would be more effective in a better story.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 0
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2004 Charles Battersby