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Gambit Weekly Talking With and Without Words

By Dalt Wonk

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  Theatre Marigny does not generally suffer from an overdeveloped sense of pragmatism. One would not be surprised to learn the theater was planning to mount Wagner's complete Ring cycle on its postage stamp-sized stage. After all, it recently did Hamlet (with all parts played by women).

Too often as a result of this adventurous -- not to say quixotic - - attitude, the resources of the theater have been stretched to the limit. And somewhat beyond. The recent well-designed production of Jane Martin's Talking With perhaps signals the beginning of a more careful and judicious approach.

To begin with, director Tanda Dykes removed the staircase and shadowbox upper level (and good-riddance, I say, for these appurtenances often tended to emphasize, rather than ameliorate, the space problem and were responsible for much awkwardness in staging).

Interestingly, however, Dykes did not turn over the now-unobstructed stage to each of the 11 actresses, one at a time, for her monologue. Instead, reacting perhaps to the abstract nature of the text, she created a sort of human puppet theater.

Here again, the visuals were a notch above what one has come to expect at Theatre Marigny.

As the play began, six women in a variety of intriguing costumes -- each with her simple, well-chosen emblematic prop -- were discovered sitting still and silent as though in a trance. They weren't quite frozen in action; they were more like marionettes that had been placed in their appropriate settings, awaiting the arrival of the puppet master.

This was not only an arresting image and a nice unifying device, it foreshadowed the oddly impersonal and didactic aspect of the monologues that make up the show. (Before continuing, let me confess that I don't share the nearly universal contemporary disdain for didacticism.)

On the face of it, Talking With is a series of revelatory dialogues spoken by modern American women of widely divergent ages, backgrounds and situations. But on another level, the monologues seemingly don't try to give a glimpse into a particular life so much as teach us something -- in the manner of a fable, or even a cautionary tale.

The rodeo girl, for example, tells us about her childhood, when rodeos were simple, homey affairs -- celebrations of ranch life by ranch people -- and how they have been taken over by promoters with an eye on profits and markets. As a result, rodeos have been denatured, drained of their true content and meaning.

Watch out, she warns us, because a bunch of assholes will see you're having fun and try to sell it. (The local applications of this moral are too painfully obvious to mention.)

In the same vein, the dying mother who removes one marble each day from a jar of marbles and holds it in her hand because "it makes the day longer" seems intent on teaching us something about the preciousness of time. And the Appalachian snake handler wants us to realize that it doesn't matter what you have faith in, so long as you aren't spiritually empty.

This tendency in the monologues to move away from the personal and revelatory and toward a more general "point" is further emphasized by the extremely theatrical use of props. The prop becomes the defining symbol of the monologue, whether it is the marble that is dropped or the oil lamp that is extinguished. One feels some of the monologues could almost be done silently.

Of course, not all the monologues are so unambiguously symbolic. The woman who dresses like a character from the Wizard of Oz, for instance, seems like a case study in regression, and the woman who loves McDonald's serves mostly as comic relief. But the didactic element is unusually strong in this script, and the Theatre Marigny revival brought this out.

The cast was generally strong. Nancy Hammons, Tracy Hernandez and Elise O'Neil managed the difficult task of creating believable characters while doubling parts. Hernandez brought an understated authenticity to the bereft marble women, Hammons' rodeo girl was charmingly unadaptable to modern marketing techniques, and O'Neil's lamp lady showed a dignified, if melancholy resignation.

Julia Lawshae and Nicole Martinez as actresses confronting the terrors of theatrical life and Carrie Day as the Appalachian snake handler gave assured performances. Newcomers Stephanie McDaniel as the lady who loves McDonald's and Janessa Scibilia as the twirler, though somewhat more tentative, gave their characters considerable charm.

The theater, by the way, was comfortably air-conditioned and stayed cool throughout the show despite a mostly full house.

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