Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Scenes from A Bordello"

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"Scenes from A Bordello"

by Melinda Lopez
Directed by Michael Hammond

Set Design by Richard Chambers
Costume Design by Michele Macadaeg
Lighting Design by Marc Olivere
Sound Design by Greg Sharrow
Stage Manager Dani L. Snyder

Miner..................................Eric Roemele
Slow Maude.........................Marie Larkin
Fat Bess..............................Paula Langton
One-Eyed Kate.....Kathryn Zamora-Benson
Tok.....................................Christina Yim

I must apologize to Melinda Lopez for taking so long to review her fine new play, to the excellent cast that takes such delight in walking around inside her characters --- to everyone connected with The Playwrights' Theatre who saw "Scenes from A Bordello" grow through the writing-workshop process into a carefully crafted, buoyantly poetic theatrical experience.

This is the first of Lopez' plays that I have seen that turns its back on her rich Cuban/American memories. The scene is a three-girl whorehouse in the Alaskan Klondike in gold-rush days, where rough men who pay with nuggets come for relief. The quick, episodic scenes glow with hints of memories, all narrowly focused on the narrow lives of these narrow girls, their Madam, and one customer who could be all their customers. "I get the money and the tips," says Fat Bess, "You get a day off --- a month." But "love-talk" here is dangerous and discouraged and the only friends --- and enemies --- the girls have are each other.

Kathryn Zamora-Benson plays One-Eyed Kate, the sharpest, cleverest schemer of the three. Her dream is to hold out enough tips --- and where do you suppose a whore could hide an occasional gold nugget from Fat Bess' sharp eyes? --- to set up shop for herself and Maude, importing girls from Mexico. She preens at her status as "best girl", plays mind-games with the other women, and directs a monologue directly to the audience about why her sister Maude is so mentally messed-up.

Marie Larkin's Slow Maude can't quite remember whether she likes dogs, or she is a dog. She predicts the coming of strangers and storms, and seems always to be listening to messages from another planet. She always "does it on top" Kate says, and she nearly drowned when a customer-lover tried to steal her away and they fell through the ice.

As the play opens, this is the entire stable that Paula Langton's blowsy Fat Bess runs. She has a heart as big and as cold as a gold nugget, and her accounting and management skills are powered by sharp, no-nonsense eyes. She's not above sharing whiskey and compliments with her girls, but "Yes Miss Bess" (or occasionally "Yes Fat Bess") is the only answer tolerated in her house. But business is good, and Bess decides to buy a new girl, who will work off the price of her purchase and her new dress before getting to keep whatever Bess decides to give as a salary.

Christina Kim plays Tok (Christened "Emily" by a sentimental customer), an Eskimo girl bought from a back-alley "kennel". Her entire village perished in a plague ("You can only tell your dreams to a Seer, but our Seer is dead."), but she works hard and honestly at the only trade she knows, proud of the sealskin jacket and memories of her people's mythology. She has little English and no guile and gets fingered for banishment when Fat Bess suspects her of cheating her, or falling in love, or both.

Eric Roemele plays the swift, sooty miner who takes a shine to Tok and eventually shelters the outcast "underground" in a mine that, by the miracle of a sumptuous cloth backdrop, has walls of pure gold. Like probably all the customers, he is briefly brutal, attempting to warp whatever girl he's dealt into his own remembered fantasy.

Richard Chambers' set for this play consists of a few pillars that suggest both upright two-by-fours, and the elegant veranda of a mansion. The smoothly painted flooring of this porch features a rounded hump at the back, center stage. The whole set is painted the glossy white of the frozen North, and the airily open set --- as delicately unspecific as the play itself --- can be cut into rooms by Marc Olivere's lights, or open into plains of frozen tundra. In this versatile space, Michele Macadaeg's costumes emphasize the dusty, low-brow opulence of Fat Bess' idea of style.

Michael Hammond seems not so much to have directed this cast as to unleash them and let them run. The close ensemble-work, the intense concentration, the intense flashes of illuminating words or sudden smiles, are always totally controlled and bubbling with life and subtext. The frank bawdiness and crassly impersonal business-orientation is always tempered by almost child-like affection the girls feel for one another. Balancing this human reality is an intense respect for the myths of the Eskimo, and even the myths of brothel life.

This is the first Melinda Lopez play I have seen that does not feel as though Lopez herself could do the entire play as a one-woman show. It is a clean departure from her personal past, full of deliciously complete people and lusciously poetic writing. I don't know why I could not write this review sooner, but I do know I cannot forget "Scenes from A Bordello." See it if you can.


"Scenes from A Bordello" (till 8 October)
949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide