Love Hurts

Three Visitations

New Music-Theater Ensemble

Fool for Love

Jungle Theater

WHO IS AMANA Del Ray? There she is in her motel room, an aging suburban chanteuse on a starred velvet seat, alone. Lest the sky begin falling, her hair is piled into a spray-fortified helmet. A heart-shaped hole cut into the glamour gown above her bosom provides an imaginary portal to a leaky ventricle. A sequined lone-ranger mask obscures her face, the finishing touch in one woman's masquerade-march toward anonymous middle age. Who is Amana Del Ray? Well, she really can't answer that question right now because she just doesn't know.

So begins the first of Three Visitations, a richly conceived and finely wrought music-theater trilogy presented by the New Music-Theater Ensemble. Theoretically, "music-theater" encompasses every union of music and theater short of the Super Bowl halftime show; practically, it seems to translate into adventurous, low-budget opera with less popular interest than Arena ball. Scored by Kim Sherman and written by Paul Selig over a decade of staged readings and partial performances, this trilogy concerns itself with characters on the cusp of self-realization. Like symbolist writing, the libretto subordinates empirical experience to emotion and perception; like magical realism (or subatomic particle theory), characters unwittingly collide with elements of the fantastic--here stray killers, beach ghosts, bed ghosts--and find their personal trajectories irrevocably altered.

"Are there any Long Island dreamers out there?" asks Amana del Ray, after a stranger of unknown intention appears at the window. And while the line recalls a lost strand of Bruce Springsteen stage banter--down on the shore everything's all right!--Amana is too desperate to play the boss with any authority. Paul Selig's libretto builds an urgent poetry out of plain and uninflected language: "I can see through TV screens/I'm a convex person/I'm just a pilled purse/I'm just a Barbie opened with a pin/These days/These nights/Since the Twilight Motor Inn." While her background singers count down from 10, hand-jiving like lazy, malevolent Shirelles, Amana (played with an appealing frenzy by Norah Long) rushes headlong into an identity crisis. "It's a long, long island," she reflects wistfully. Yes, it is.

Where "Long Island Dreamer" offers an accessible doo-wop sound (accompanied only by an electric bass), the other two segments feature everyone's favorite modern music game, Hide The Melody, while expanding in orchestration to a classic opera quintet: upright bass, cello, celeste, saxophone and accordion. It almost goes without saying that the urge to tap one's foot and whistle along to the pretty parts is negligible. Which is not to suggest that there aren't pretty parts.

"Red Tide," in which a pair of Catholic school buddies visit the beach where one
of them nearly drowned, conveys much of the adolescent angst and yearning of another set of Beach Boys, but with a fraction of the tune. While Lutece, in strained falsetto, recalls the assurance he felt as a child in the lifeguard's strong arms, his friend Worm lobbies for selling more raffle tickets. Imagine A Separate Peace as a love story. Imagine The Chocolate War sans war and chocolate. Imagine that these actors aren't pushing 30.

While the turbulent end of "Red Tide" had a handful of viewers weeping uncontrollably (and a dozen others furtively going for Kleenex), one older woman, perhaps less accustomed to the sight of liplocked boys, giggled. Yet "Lamentations," the longest and most intricate of the stories, is so lurid as to make an entire audience squirm in unison. Following the death of her sadistic husband and her exclusion from his will, venomous Judith turns against their 11-year-old son, Milo. Before long, Milo is seeing shadows and hearing apparitional echoes, twitching over the bed like Linda Blair, speaking intimately about Mommy and Daddy's adult time, and making a move on his maid. Things reach the apex of creepiness when mother, in studded mask, dog collar, and negligee, invites son to join her (and a dagger) on the bed. Like an unsanitized German fairy tale, "Lamentations" is a dark psychodrama where aberrant sexuality and corrosive envy reveal the deeper scripts of ordinary lust and desire.

Few playwrights of recent memory have delved any deeper into the diseased American archetypes of sex and violence than Sam Shepard. What might be most remarkable about 1983's Fool For Love, in which abusive lovers Eddie and May do battle in a shabby desert motel, is how comic such sordid stuff can be. The Jungle Theater's impressive production steers the play away from its visceral extreme; only the gratuitous sound design is left to pummel the viewer. But while Terry Hempleman depicts Eddie as if he mainlines testosterone, Carolyn Goelzer stumbles as a brooding May. One looks into Goelzer's eyes and sees her thinking about acting. Then she acts. In Shepard country, that's all the time it takes to become a victim. CP

Three Visitations plays at the Southern Theater through June 30; 340-1725. Fool For Love plays at the Jungle Theater through September 1; 822-7063.

 
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