Alchemy of Desire/
Dead Man's Blues
IT'S OFTEN SAID that there is a dearth of spiritualism and community in this country, a theory that goes a long way to explain why moviegoers welled up so gratefully during masterpieces like Ghost and Boys on the Side. Two current plays, University Theatre's staging of Shakespeare's The Tempest and Frank Theatre's production of Caridad Svich's Alchemy of Desire/Dead Man's Blues, both deal with mysticism, spirits, and black magic--just what we've been missing. In The Tempest, Shakespeare's spirits are flawed, his mortals complex. By comparison (not that it's fair to stack any playwright against the Bard), the characters in Alchemy/Dead Man are so desperate to seem soulful and spiritual that they come off as shrill.
Alchemy/Dead Man opens "somewhere, sometime," with the young widow Simone (Gail Quinn) sitting in her backyard. She is surrounded by buckets and buckets of KFC, delivered to her by well-meaning friends and neighbors upon the death of her husband Jamie (Mark Rhein), killed during the war. "I wuz doin' good, I wuz beatin' up the bad guys," our loutish dead hero says during a spiritual flashback. But are we meant to believe that he's a fiery, passionate young man, the one who drives Simone into a disabling grief? Simone sits for days among the KFC buckets, recalling Jamie and becoming nauseated by the smell of the chicken bones. Meanwhile, her friends and neighbors gossip about how best to relieve her bereavement.
Although the play takes place "somewhere," for some reason the actors all affect what someone must have told them was a Southern accent. According to the bio, Svich is "a playwright/poet of Cuban, Croatian, Argentine, and Spanish descent," born in Philadelphia and currently residing in Los Angeles. Perhaps this is why her impressions of the South seem culled from Gone with the Wind and Fried Green Tomatoes--which is to say that there's much hand-wringing and green-bean-snapping during the dialogue. Nary 30 seconds go by before someone is saying, "Hush yo mouf, chil'" or "ain't" or "'Tis." Also, garbed as they are in lots of jewelry and fancy straw hats, it's hard to say whether these women are indigent Southern dwellers or tourists on their way to Hilton Head Island for a round of golf. And, with all the earthy singing that accompanies their grieving and gossiping, there's something a little suspect about the sight of three white Southern women singing spirituals while doing their chores.
At any rate, with the help of her women friends, Simone lets Jamie's spirit move on peacefully to another place and allows herself to return to worldly matters--like cleaning up all those chicken bones in the yard. At times, the script is rich in symbolism and metaphor, and the actors do a nice job of evoking ritual and spirits. Unfortunately, the play's abundant self-righteousness is tough to swallow. In the final scene, Simone, looking solemn and somewhat touched by a profound revelation, decides that she'll need new shoes for her journey so that she might "walk on this earth and see where my feet land, see what my feet see that my head can't"; then she plucks out two KFC buckets, straps them to her feet, and marches off stage with a faraway look in her eyes. That was meant to be funny, wasn't it?
Comparatively traditional, the University's joyous production of The Tempest has been refreshed with original music, fanciful costumes, pyrotechnics, and flying contraptions. There are plenty of spirits and humans to be set free in this plot too, which tells the tale of the shipwrecked sorcerer Prospero (Richard Walters) in his efforts to wreak vengeance on those who deposed him--not to mention find a suitable mate for his angelic daughter Miranda (Heidi Fredericks). Prospero creates a tempest and brings a cast of enemies and allies to the island where various spirits pose a series of tests for the castaways. Eventually, the enemies are found out, the lovers and families united, and slaves freed as Prospero turns his fancy to forgiveness.
The program notes suggest that Shakespeare was aware of the alchemical meaning of the word tempest: a boiling process which eliminates impurities from base metal and turns it into gold. Perhaps his notion has become antiquated by now. In The Tempest, the characters use black magic to rid themselves of moral impurities and become free. In Alchemy of Desire/Dead Man's Blues, the characters use black magic to free troubled spirits--and end up walking around in cardboard buckets.
The Tempest continues at Rarig Center on the West Bank through Sunday, and reopens January 9 through January 17; call 624-2345. Alchemy of Desire/Dead Man's Blues continues at the Theater Garage through November 30; call 377-0501.
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