note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Larry Stark
The Third Annual Boston Women On Top Theater Festival has emphasized written plays this year, with only three of the nine unique events solo performances --- by Paula Plum, Melinda Lopez, and Erika Batdorf --- and plays written by Rosanna Yamgiwa Alfaro, Deborah Lake Fortson, Wanda Strukus and Kate Snodgrass on the bill. Erika Batdorf is also listed as the writer of a collaborative piece and director of another. Debra Wise lends her acting talents to four of the plays, and Daniel Gidron has done lots of the directing. The result is three powerful, varied programs of innovative theater by and about women --- plus the Brecht/Weill cabaret "Moon Over Dark Street" late Saturday nights. . CentaStage Performance Group and Underground Railway Theater have put together a solid string of events for this year's festival. Expect the unexpected!
It's not just the shirt and tie, pants and suit jacket she wears that transforms Erika Batdorf into a man --- it's stance, gesture patterns, accent, and attitude. And she shows how easy it is by winding herself into a fluffy pink boa from time to time to become Mr. Raisin Head's girlfriend.
The man refers to himself as a raisin because he's old enough to see wrinkles in the mirror he consults daily, looking for an elusive inarticulable essence of self that might impress the "Virtues" who cannot see him. He likes water, and worries that he's not nice spontaneously, but merely acts nice in order to get something. The woman he meets trying to understand art at the MFA helps him --- in a metaphor from the description of an Installation Piece where the floor is covered with water --- to turn from a dry lizard into a fish. When Batdorf's Mr. Raisin Head becomes a fish, the transformation is as effortless and miraculous as that from man to woman and back.
Batdorf's body does amazing things, effortlessly, and there is a hidden hint of searching spirituality shining through all her work. She's amazing.
In the black-outs between bits here, the three women banter and bicker about what's next, where to stand, which foot to begin on, and whether the audience is getting it. They use movement, repetitive chant, lecture, irony, mime, dance, and teacups. They are attempting a collaborative, non-linear theatrical piece without conflict --- which is harder than it looks.
While the piece is abstract, the three personalities involved are vital, expressive, impressive presences. Whatever the piece is, it never fails to fascinate.
This is not a monologue but a play for one person. Rosanna Alfaro's tornado survivor calls into existence a ghoulish television reporter, gawkers, and scattered neighbors as she picks through debris. Debra Wise plays a woman here whose married life was a shambles before the twister hit. She has little regret over the husband she kicked out having his back broken by the storm, but the memory of her 70-pound mutt of a dog blowing past her trailer's window is a great calamity.
The play is short and pithy, and populated with a wide variety of people.
This is a monologue, which Paula Plum starts as a holocaust survivor searching a memorial for her daughter's number among the commemorated dead, and then moves through memory into several characters, including a self-centered camp commander's crafty wife.
Each woman here speaks directly to the audience, recounting facts and experiences from their different perspectives, illuminating again a time of epic barbarity and beleaguered human dignity. Plum's characters bring the whole experience vividly alive again with new details, and ending with a happy note of hope.
Young Woman.......Catherine Gowl
In Kate Snodgrass' play everything pushes up from the subtexts. Lucy is a recent widow taking a train back to Switzerland after twenty-two years of affluent but ambivalent marriage. She talks as much to herself as to the knitting fellow-passenger who apparently knows only French. She insists she is Madame no more, but Mademoiselle once again --- or will be once she's safely in Switzerland. Her secret, and her attitude toward it, unfold like the petals of a flower.
Here is Debra Wise again, haughtily reviewing a comfortable life, but one apparently as empty as the souvenir can of "Air of The Alps" she has kept sealed since her honeymoon. And the faintly smiling, attentive but uncomprehending Catherine Gowl has the difficult task of listening without understanding.
No doubt Daniel Gidron's direction is responsible for the flowering of this well-shaped gem, but it remains, like any good director's work, subtextual under the interactions of the actresses involved.
Mrs. Web.......................................Jennifer Jones
Mrs. Moorehouse..........................Kim Mansfield
Mr. Slocum........................................Will Cabell
Mrs. Young.....................................Ann Leacock
Robby 3........................................Wanda Strukus
Robby 2..............................................Bill Folman
In Wanda Strukus' somewhat surreal play, seaside gossipers are willing to do almost anything about the struggling man they all know can't swim --- except any attempts to save him. Their light-hearted banter, denial of danger, and even construction of a dummy they talk to and about as though it were the dying man are absurd, but only Robby 2's wife Darla ever takes the problem seriously.
The performances here are excellent, forcing into sharp focus the oddities of the script. Why is dad Robby 2 (and his son either Robby 3 or Robby 2A, depending on whether you believe the script or the program)? Why are Darla's left sandal, then her robe, then her dress hoisted into the flies, two of them over the heads of the audience? This comedy is funny and disturbing by turns --- until it becomes obvious that the playwright intends to raise questions, never to answer them.
Sitter........Deborah Lake Fortson
The Sitter in Deborah Lake Fortson's play is swathed to the neck in bandages, and she's trying, with the impatient help of an investigator, to remember why, in the act of reaching for a glass of water, she found herself paralysed. The situation evokes thoughts of stroke and Alzheimer's without ever being specific: the two women take the situation as it is and deal with it, eventually revealing and re-invigorating the Sitter's hands.
The playwright herself plays the Sitter, Lizza Riley the hectoring Stander, and Director Erika Batdorf keeps the action alive and compelling by giving Riley intense movement patterns, and giving the pair arguments and comments full of comic moments to enliven and offset the querulous search for memory and understanding. Enigmatic though it is, the play has a human demand for meaning as its intriguing wellspring.
This is an ethnic romp in which Melinda Lopez becomes her mother, father, aunt, grandmother and even great-grandmother in her search for a lost Cuban heritage. Using props and costumes she leaps back and forward through time, asking and answering, learning, and eventually understanding why her family has no interest in remembering.
Lopez is a lively, engaging performer eagerly and generously sharing her unique life. And again, the directorial eye of Betsy Carpenter has ensured that there is never a dull moment along the way.
Belle Linda Halpern
Ron Roy, Piano
produced by The Pilgrim Theatre Collaborative
Beverly Creasey reviewed this bitingly beautiful recreation of the Weimar Republic, the rise of Adolph Hitler, and the investigations of our own House un-American Activities Committee --- all seen through the sardonic eyes of Bertolt Brecht. The songs of Brecht and Weill, some familiar yet created fresh and new and others too long forgotten yet vividly, pointedly effective, have the sweaty smell of pre-war Berlin, and always will --- but rarely so perfectly rendered..
The performers are so intensely wedded to their material that a shift of eyeballs can trigger laughs, a shift of key can bring on tears. Obviously, Director Kim Mancuso has honed this production down to a razor-sharp essence in which not a syllable nor a move is accidental or without meaning. They sing many songs in both English and German, and it's hard to say which is more effective; once the sense of lyrics is clear, the rasp of the language adds additional bite. This is a show in which arrival in Hollywood is illustrated when the three performers whip into sun-glasses and lie back to catch some rays. This is a lush cherry to the Boston Women On Top.
This Third Annual Boston Women On Top Festival is a powerful array of excellent theater, with something for everyone and everything excellently played. I recommend a series pass and a weekend wallowing in theatrical excellence.