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CurtainUp DC Report: September 1997
"Parents and Children"

by Les Gutman

September DC Report Topics
(Note: Monthly reports arrive mid-month, but are updated in between.)
    Mothers, by Issak Esmail Issak (reviewed)
    tigertigertiger, by Mac Wellman (reviewed)
    Rent, by Jonathan Larson
    A Touch of the Poet, by Eugene O'Neill
Web pages mentioned in this report
Links to topics covered in prior DC Reports and to DC Theater Guides

In Shaw's Misalliance (which I reviewed for CurtainUp in New York in August), the main character is driven to say: "Parents and Children! No man should know his own child. No child should know its [sic] own father." This month's report on theater in DC (which includes CurtainUp's first visit to Baltimore) seems centered on these creatures.

Review: Mothers
It is perhaps fitting that Baltimore has a theater company, the Splitting Image Theatre Company, which is devoted to the development of original work based on psychological issues. It is after all the city whose history of psychiatric experimentation includes the sanitarium from which Zelda Fitzgerald was granted leave long enough to burn down the house in which Scott was living. The company's first production of its new season is a world premiere called simply Mothers. It might have been called Two Characters In Search of Each Other.
There are, in fact, only two characters, and both are mothers-to-be. Although the lines between the real, the imagined and the vindictively suggested are purposely somewhat blurred, the tangled web of facts appears to be as follows: Mira (Nancy Robinette) has had a mother/daughter relationship (hellationship might be a better word) with Bela (Pebble Kranz) for twenty-plus years. As Bela learns, Mira actually gave birth to another baby -- father unknown -- that she secretly exchanged for Bela at the hospital. Mira reasoned that it would be better to have a baby unrelated by blood to either parent than to have one related only to one.

All of this is revealed after we discover that both Mira and Bela are pregnant with the same man's child, and that the man in question is their husband/father. (I will not venture into an explanation of how the husband's mistress, who just passed away, figures into all of this.)

Mothers reeks of mid-range Beckett. When the house is opened to the audience, the couch potato Bela is already in position under her ratty comforter, watching an old black-and-white movie on television and drinking bottled water. Into this mix one part of some variant of expressionism and two parts overly poetic dialogue and you have the recipe for a Pirandello-esque play that's easy to label (and dismiss) as pretentious. If you're willing to hold your nose and wade through this, however, you'll find a spunky little work that's provocative and even funny. I think it's worth the effort.
There is certainly no shortage of material on the subject of mothers and daughters. (The press kit for this show includes three articles, ranging from one by Freud to one from the September 2, 1997 Washington Post to my personal favorite, called "Eleven Ways to Leave a Mother".) It's a subject almost all of us can identify with on some leve and the playwright has offered a fresh take on these issues, perhaps in spite of himself.

Nancy Robinette is very much in her element here. She chants innocent words in a way that turns them into something eerie; she speaks bizarre lines like "without evil men, life's not worth living," and makes an audience laugh nervously. Her comedy is always on an edge: her sexy is one step from depraved; her happy is one tilt from manic. Isaak's writing would be insufferable in lesser hands. His play is about finding a queasy comfort zone on the fine line between love and hate. Robinette knows how to get there.

Pebble Kranz doesn't. Maybe it's unfair to expect her to. Conflicted and melancholy, Bela is a tough character to redeem. Isaak doesn't make it easy, but then again neither does life.
by Isaak Esmail Isaak 
starring Nancy Robinette and Pebble Kranz 
Directed by Elijah Dawson 
Theatre Project, 45 West Preston Street, Baltimore (410) 752-8558 
September 10 - 28, 1997
Review: tigertigertiger
I have long held the view that, to succeed as musical theater, a musical must work without its songs. On this basis, tigertigertiger, Mac Wellman's new musical fable "for the whole family," having its world premiere at the Theatre of the First Amendment, should succeed. Without its songs, the play is exceptional.

Go back and re-read that last sentence. I meant exactly what I wrote. Unfortunately, with its songs, it loses a lot. Michael Roth's music is fine: tuneful, appropriate, even beautiful sometimes. With a rock sensibility, it is nicely performed by a band consisting of keyboards, guitar, bass and drums (what we might start calling a Rent-style configuration). But the lyrics! Yikes.

Musical theater lyrics are tough. Not only must they be clear, they have to be integrated into the forward movement of the play. Here, they are neither. They are a muddle, and they generally sink like lead balloons. It's a shame because the spoken words around which they are wrapped are well-written, and the story is both ingenious and meaningful.

Few people write fables anymore. For one thing, it virtually guarantees that a play will be dispatched to children's theaters. For another, audiences are unwilling to take them seriously. But Mac Wellman doesn't have a reputation for following the crowds and, to its credit, neither did the Theatre of the First Amendment. When the Kennedy Center walked away from this project, this company stepped in.

As advertised, this is a play for the whole family, and it deserves to be taken seriously. A fable rooted in reality, it is very accessible to children (don't take my word on this: I took along a bright first grader who agrees) but it is written for adults to understand. Wellman's language is uncompromising, never speaking down to children.

tigertigertiger is a dream, and beautifully captures the randomness of dream images and ideas. It features a kid (Kyle Prue) and his alter ego (Sandra L. Holloway). Both actors, by the way, are adults, even though Prue is so good at seeming like a child, it would be easy to forget. The kid and his uncle (Harry A. Winter) nod off in the midst of a story about tigers.

This launches the dream, taking the kid's on a journey in search of the tigers that ate their uncle. They visit the streets of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where they meet a homeless man; a missile test site in the desert of New Mexico, where they meet J. Robert Oppenheimer;  and the moon, where they meet a moon creature. (Winter returns in these scenes as the incidental characters.) Three terrific (convincing, if occasionally terrifying) tigers populate the dream: The Man-Eater of the Upper East Side (Craig Wallace), The White Sands Missile Range Man-Eater (Illona Dulaski) and The Man in the Moon Moon Man-Eater (Richard Pelzman).

We learn a great deal about humanity from these tigers, and something of the jungle we call earth. The horror of a dentist named Dr. Grimaldi and a botched root canal looms over the proceedings as well.

Sets are splendid and inventive. As the kids wander through the streets of Manhattan, the sets (including a great replica of the Chrysler Building) shift and dance. They give way seamlessly to the deserts and moonscapes which follow. Costumes are equally well conceived. From the kid's pajamas turned expedition gear to the evocative but not too obvious tiger costumes (we would not want, and did not get, leftovers from the Cats costume shop, with stripes added), they are original and clever.
by Mac Wellman 
with Kyle Prue, Harry A. Winter, Sandra L. Holloway, Richard Pelzman, Ilona Dulaski 
and Craig Wallace. 
Directed by Tom Prewitt 
TheatreSpace, Center for the Arts, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA (703) 993-8888 
September 10-28, 1997
Sic Transit Bohemia
As mentioned last month, Rent is spending the fall at the National Theatre. Although we won't be reviewing this production per se, I did get a chance to see it. Having seen the original Broadway cast the week the show opened (and on another occasion as well), I can report that the touring production is exceptionally good -- in some cases, even better than the original. For more information than you could possibly want on Rent can be found on its official website, linked below.

In keeping with this month's theme, I should mention that one of my favorite parts of Rent, often overlooked in reviews, is the unique way it explores the relationship of parents and children. I won't give too much away by saying that answering machines play a prominent role.

My O'Neill Marathon: A Touch of the Poet
When I reviewed two productions of Eugene O'Neill's plays, Desire Under the Elms and Ah Wilderness! (links to those reviews are listed below) in one week this past summer, I observed that there seems to be an enormous resurgence of interest in his plays, popular as well as obscure. For no particular reason, I decided to commence an O'Neill marathon (with the goal of seeing the entire œuvre over some unspecified period of time). There are supposedly almost 70 O'Neill plays, which leaves me with quite a few yet-to-be-seen. Luckily for me, O'Neill was kind enough to destroy all of his unfinished work except More Stately Mansions (which, incidentally, is being staged by New York Theatre Workshop this season).

Arena Stage provides an assist in my goal with A Touch of the Poet (yet another take on parents and children). Directed by Michael Kahn (who directed The Shakespeare Theatre's Mourning Becomes Electra last season), it runs from October 3 through November 9, on Arena's Fichandler stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW (202) 488-3300. More information can be found on Arena's website, linked below.
Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report
The Mechanic Theatre website:
Rent Official Website:
CurtainUp's review of Desire Under the Elms
CurtainUp's review of Ah Wilderness!
Arena Stage website:
©September 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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