There's an otherworldly love triangle in Jean Giraudoux's The Enchanted that's typical of the play's daft world. A young woman gives in to the seductions of a sexy ghost with the hangdog charm of a misunderstood punk rocker, and conducts a rendezvous with him that night. But a rival for her affections--an officious young bureaucrat who works for the Department of Weights and Measures--decides to stand up to the ghost. He seems all too stiff and all too corporeal to be a serious contender. But love shows him the way: He pours his heart out, making a convincing case that a life weighing and measuring things is the very height of excitement and poetry. His bug-eyed passion is by turns hilarious and touching, and it nearly succeeds in winning her over.
15 Head's wholly successful production of The Enchanted follows a similar, lunatic inspiration, embracing Giraudoux's topsy-turvy world with theatrical gusto. Written in 1933, the play starts by showing how life in a provincial French town has been transformed by reports of a ghost hovering around a local lake. But this news hasn't frightened the townspeople one bit. In fact, they suddenly seem...well, happy. And the cosmos seems to be in sync. As one character puts it, "fortune seems to be displaying some intelligence," for once. In the local lottery, the prize of a motorcycle has been won by someone other than the local convent's mother superior. It's hard to resist a play that makes passing reference to a head nun with a garage full of dubiously won Harley hogs.
Director Jon Micheels Leiseth and company add layers of lush movement and design that enhance Giraudoux's wry magic. In one scene, political officials become increasingly hysterical over the town's frightening new bliss, moving in an accelerating grid pattern that becomes increasingly hard to maintain--and eventually ridiculous. I've rarely heard sound used so effectively: Chamber strings, buzzing bees, goofy game-show bells, and galloping horses all weave themselves around the playful performances. When work like this is done without care, it's rightly labeled pretentious. But 15 Head's artistic attention to The Enchanted is the very opposite of cynical.
I must admit that my heart sank before the start of Gremlin Theater's production of Independence by Lee Blessing. I'd just taken my seat in front of the play's set, a simulacrum of a 20th-century United States Living Room, complete with couch and coffee table--the setting of every other play in existence, it seems, and half the sitcoms. The American family play, in which one prodigal member comes home and stirs the pot, is as much a slave to ritual as Kabuki theater. Oh boy, thought I, here it comes: Nuclear family secrets will be uncovered, grievances about poor parenting will be aired, beverages will be served, and monologues sifting through unfulfilled dreams will have the hell acted out of 'em.
Yet Independence, written in 1984, is a smart play that defies snooty assumptions like the ones I held. It's true to its genre, to be sure; at one point, beverages are served. But it's during a forced family therapy tea party that's both witty and heartbreaking. Blessing's story of three daughters and their supremely difficult mother is deft in avoiding the worst traps of the genre (see snooty assumptions, above). This mother may be a type--she could give Livia Soprano a run for her money in the Bad Mommy Olympics--but she's no stereotype, especially in Ellen Karsten's intelligent performance. She shifts her eyes from daughter to daughter, hyperalert for any sign of weakness, as ready to purr reassuringly as she is to bellow in animal rage if it will get her what she wants.
The tragedy is that she's not simply a monster; there's also real tenderness in those eyes at times. Peter Hansen's precise direction finds the living tissue in Blessing's script, and never allows us (well, okay, me) to feel too smug for having this world pegged.