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Intimations for Saxophone

by Sam Thielman

Susan Lynskey, Susan Hightower and Makela Spielman and ensemble
S. Lynskey, S. Hightower and M. Spielman
(Photo: Scott Suchman)
Kartner's rich voice fills the room. Ragged and grandfatherly and charmingly clipped by an Austrian accent, its gravelly subtleties stand out in sharp contrast to the young, strong, and bell-clear questioning tones produced by Lily (Karron Graves). "We never really get a clean slate in life," intones Kartner (Christopher McCann) to Lily, by way of advice. " True enough, and worth bearing in mind during Sophie Treadwell's never-before-staged Intimations for Saxophone, written in the 1930's, dug up just recently by dramaturg Michael Kinghorn, and staged by Anne Bogart as an astonishingly vital meditation on ennui and its purposes. Even as Lily tries to start over (by getting married, by leaving her marriage, by finding new love), Treadwell and Bogart never stop reminding the audience that going away and escaping aren't really the same thing. As Lily puts it, "I think love is an escape." .

For a piece about a woman seeking the satisfaction missing from her marriage, it's surprising how sharp and up-tempo Intimations for Saxophone remains. The actors break into marvelous dance between scenes, jitterbugging with the critical lightness needed to keep Treadwell's subjects afloat.

Barney O'Hanlon walks Lily's childish husband Gilly along the thin line between haplessness and hopelessness. Even as a needy, infantile fool, Gilly retains his naïveté, and it's very hard not to feel sorry for him when Lily leaves.

Lily is intelligent and honest, but also fully human, and Treadwell does her the service of suggesting that she be held responsible for her marriage as much as Gilly. Lily is seen not only engaging in an affair, but actually learning from it, and exhibiting a better knowledge of human nature in the future. "Sadder But Wiser Housewives," perhaps.

The staging represents the void that Lily feels in a variety of ways, but none more effective than the stage itself. When the setting is her house, it rises to form a square walkway with an unlit, lowered center. When Gilly asks her why she must always have the saxophone music playing, she says simply, "It fills in." "Fills in what?" he asks, but he doesn't get an answer. At the beginning of the play Lily doesn't like the sax at all, musing that it sounds "so hungry, and lonely, and so empty." But there's a reason that the music makes her uncomfortable: they're playing her song.

The sound design, too, serves the script well. The jazz music seems picked to underscore the themes of the play, rather than giving the dramatic moments a little push a la film. When Lily dances by herself in her room, alone and damaged, the music is a bitter, growly solo. When she dances in a group, a full band plays a lighter melody.

Bogart has stripped the stage of all props except a few nightclub tables and small lamps, increasing the spacious performance area to accommodate the wide variety of roles written for her actors -- the glamorous part of the bureau, for example, or the breakout character of the sink. All of the set pieces that are not tables or chairs are formed by actors alone or in conjunction with one another, making boats and closets and furniture.

The play is understandably dated -- Freudian theory shows up unquestioned a few times, and occasionally the jokes don't quite work. Bogart, however, seems to understand the play's flaws and works hard to compensate for them. The surrealism of the staging works wonders against the stark reality of the situation in the script, retaining a sort of Virginia Woolfish quality in the midst of a lot of good jazz and Barney O'Hanlon's limber choreography.

Above all, Bogart polishes the similarities between the Jazz Age and our own, making clear the universality of Lily's predicament, and the difficulty of life in general; life with someone else in particular. Bogart and Treadwell dance enlightenment at breakneck speed and rarely miss a step; their play is a wonder to behold, and not merely for the decades-long gap in their collaboration.

Editor's Note: For a review of a revival of Treadwell's well known Machinal, go here.

Intimations for Saxophone
by Sophie Treadwell
Directed by Anne Bogart
with Akiko Aizawa, Shawn Fagan, Gian-Murray Gianino, Karron Graves, Susan Hightower, Marcus Kyd, Susan Lynskey, Christopher McCann, Barney O'Hanlon, and Makela Spielman
Dramaturg: Michael Kinghorn
Dances: Barney O'Hanlon
Soundscape: Darron L. West
Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind
Costume Design: James Schuette
Set Design: Neil Patel
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes with intermission
Arena Stage, 1101 6 Street SW
Telephone: 202.554.9066
TUE, WED, SUN @7:30; THU, FRI, SAT @8:00; SUN @2:00
Opening 01/27/05, closing 02/27/05
Reviewed by Sam Thielman based on 01/27/05 performance
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