Well, here's an unusual circumstance: two playwrights, both recipients of the 2001-2002 McKnight Advancement Grant, both living in the Twin Cities, both with plays produced locally at very nearly the same time. At the Playwrights' Center is Carson Kreitzer with her play SELF-DEFENSE, or death of some salesmen, produced by Frank Theatre. And at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage is Julie Marie Myatt with her play Cowbird, presented by Eye of the Storm. Spring is just around the corner, and already the McKnights are in bloom.
Both plays ostensibly deal with stories that might be ripped from the tabloid headlines, SELF-DEFENSE detailing the sorry last days of a female mass murderer, Cowbird essaying the similar horrors of, er, adoption. More specifically, Cowbird tells of a rather frisky middle-aged woman, played with boozy, flirty mannerisms by Sally Wingert in a sundress that seems designed mostly to frame her bosom. Her daily chores (which consist, as far as we can tell, of paying bills, pressing her bosom up against strangers in the local bar, blinking her long eyelashes, sipping the free martinis that follow, and then hitching rides in convertibles) are rudely interrupted by a growing parade of young adults with adoption papers in hand, insisting that she is their mother. It is a play that calls for a seemingly endless number of variations of the condition of being flustered, and Wingert is ingenious in this matter. Where one moment she is flustered into a sort of mild temper tantrum, in another she will burst out laughing, and in a third she simply starts slapping things.
The set is a stacked series of platforms, a long bar, and a David Hockney-like panorama of the West Coast--a photo series of the same horizon from several vantage points. Wingert clicks across this set in high heels, chasing a martini on one end of the bar and then another martini on the other end, while an excellent supporting cast wanders in to annoy her. Among these are Casey Greig and Claudia Wilkens, for example--the former a coltish young man with a mess of brown hair and an abrupt, coarsely comical manner; the latter a fixture on the Twin Cities theater scene, drawling as she often does like a bothersome and somewhat daft next-door neighbor, which is exactly what she plays in this production.
There is an argument that can be made that some plays are worth seeing simply for their cast, and that argument seems applicable to Cowbird. Because while it is a pleasure to watch Wingert share the stage with Greig and Wilkens, it is occasionally a little awkward to watch her share it with Myatt's script, which is sometimes greatly funny but at other times clumsily poetic. Greig tends to shout out sentences from Frankenstein when he's feeling a little rejected, for example, which would be a mistake in daily life, and is no less a mistake onstage. Further, one of Wingert's abandoned children--a pushy, pregnant girl played by Briana Kennedy-Coker--has an unexpected habit of expressing her bewilderment in metaphorical language, which moves into the unintelligible with alarming speed.
Why do my feet hurt at night? she demands of Wingert, and, yes, adopted children might want to know a little about their medical history. Why do my feet run away? she then demands, and, all right, it's poetic, but it works as poetry, as feet do indeed run away. Why do my feet sleep with other feet? she then demands. Strangers' feet! I don't know, kid, but maybe a better pair of shoes might help.
In another of what I will dub the McKnight coincidences, SELF-DEFENSE is also a showcase for terrific local actors, in this case Phyllis Wright playing a horse of a different color, or a whore of a...different...no, never mind. There's no pun there worth making.
Carson Kreitzer's script borrows heavily from the true story of Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who put bullets into a large number of sadistic johns in Florida a decade ago. And it is, in a word, magnificent. More than that, it is well suited to the Frank Theatre, and particularly to director Wendy Knox, who, while delighted by overtly political material, is never a bully about it. Indeed, Knox seems to think that the best sweetener for that bitter medicine truth is a dash of bleak humor. To that end, Kreitzer has filled her play with unexpectedly comical transitions (morticians who take off their clothes and dance wild stripteases); nasty characterizations (self-righteous feminists, vile policemen, moronic johns); and tatty twists of language (one character finds far too much pleasure in the fact that one of the murdered clients was a sausage delivery man).
Only Wright's character is spared this withering ironic tone, perhaps because the torment she suffered at the hands of those she killed was so profound, or perhaps because her own self-defense is so astonishing. It is just assumed that if you are going to be a prostitute, you might get murdered, she argues. I want it also to be assumed that if you want to hurt a prostitute, you stand a good chance of winding up dead yourself.
Point made, and no need for poetry.