Arts » Theater

Ladies They Talk About

Two new theater companies chronicle the plight of women caught in very different traps.


Laura Perrotta, seen here rendering fresh butter at the piano.
  • Laura Perrotta, seen here rendering fresh butter at the piano.
Every year a hopeful crop of theater companies attempts to break through the Cleveland rocks to add needed heft to an undernourished theater environment.

So it went this past week when a plucky new generation of baby entrepreneurs decided to try its luck sending out smoke-signals and press releases to proclaim its new troops. One takes the proletariat angle: The Piece of People, or POP, Theater Company plans to "dissect humanity for more insight into the meaning of our existence." Not to be outdone in the buzz department, Moving Spaces, taking the snootier route, claims it will focus on "literary works that express issues of personhood rather than those that are merely flashy or shocking." Each company has rolled its dice, one coming up lucky seven and the other snake eyes (but "B" for effort).

Starting on the seamy side, we have Mud at the Brick Alley Theatre. From its lusty evocation of sow rape ("She liked it!") to its microscopic examination of two shack dwellers driven through puerile selfishness to destroy their nurturing earth-mother surrogate, this ninety-minute exercise in grotesque fantasia by Maria Irene Fornes wallows in its title ingredient.

It is tailored to please those who grew up immersed in the theater of cruelty, relishing the cerebral blood sport of Albee and the surrealistic absurdities of Ionesco.

On the Brick Alley stage is the suggestion of a Depression shack straight out of Cannery Row. In it we follow the tawdry journey of a perverse trio who start out on Tobacco Road and eventually, after side excursions to Pinterland and Shepherdville, end up on one of the lower rungs of Dante's Inferno. Underneath the baroque wordplay of this 1983 extravagant black comedy lurks a feminist exposé of male brutality. Mae, the distressed victim of Mud, is shown as a houseplant attempting to flower and grow beyond the squalor of her environment through education. She cohabits with a degenerate stepbrother who thrives on pig slop and has hardly progressed beyond Neanderthal man. Hoping for something better, she takes in a lover who, by the second act, drops his charming facade to reveal another emotionally crippled, debased monster who sucks her oxygen. Done with the proper stylized absurdity, this fierce black comedy could be the dank flip side of Noel Coward, an impoverished Design for Living or a putrid Private Lives having the perverse kick of vintage moonshine. Director Jon Herbert, however, distills it all wrong; he treats this play as though it were an exercise in Depression realism, like The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men. He kills half the laughs and dampens the piece's grand grotesquerie, striving for the false god of psychological veracity.

As done here, it produces a rather toxic, dispiriting effect. Take, for example, that septuagenarian couple who were in attendance for the show's debut. These well-heeled first-nighters and proud patrons of the Cleveland arts shook their heads in disbelief after just a few minutes into matters, when Lloyd, Degenerate No. 1, proudly pointed out his semen spot on the wall. When he pulled up his shorts to reveal the contours of a concave ass and proceeded to go into an aria concerning the rotten blows dealt by his prostate disease, the woman whispered in decibels equal to a rock band that she wanted to go home, even if it meant jostling the dingy thespians on the way out.

Like troops sent to the wrong front by a dipsomaniac general, this brave threesome wages bloody battle against grievous odds. Curly-headed Simon Lovell is too young, British, and sensuous for this house of slime. He offers a swashbuckling sneer and comports himself like Lord Byron at a hillbilly masquerade. Andrew Narten twitches and twangs like the honorary Mayor of Dogpatch. Poor Gretchen Thomas seems as drained of life and horror-stricken as the mummified Mrs. Bates. As the elderly matron who fled from this show exclaimed: "Dirty! Dirty!"

It is usually the custom here to tout theatrical sensations that can still be savored, yet now we can only play gloating historian to laud Moving Spaces for pulling off a near miracle. A jaw-dropping debut, a production of Ibsen's fierce warhorse Hedda Gabler is here, rendered fresh as butter out of a churn, as sumptuous and stirring as something you usually need to take a bus or plane hundreds of miles to get to.

Laura Perrotta, as the eponymous trapped firebrand aiming her pistol, whirling like a dervish in brown lace, is something worth traveling light years to experience.

Admittedly, it is a clumsy cliché to keep digging up long-dead sliver screen luminaries to describe a performance. Yet Perrotta on stage is a pure prism, reflecting Hollywood hues such as Vivien Leigh's exquisitely dimpled petulance that renders her endearing while she commits the most heinous acts. Above all, Perrotta gives us the Hedda that Bette Davis would have handed us, somewhere between 1938 and 1941. There to savor are the radioactive hooded eyes, the nervous gait, the feverish concentration as she stares out of a window — like Davis at the end of The Little Foxes. She nibbles a grape with the animal ferocity of a vampire and plants her hands on her hips with Napoleonic determination. Above all, she transmits her anger, rage, and impatience to make everyone in the audience her co-conspirator. Those who missed this performance deserve a sympathy card.

As in any A picture of the '40s, Perrotta is backed up by a sterling cast of supporting players. One can envision director Sonya Robbins with a megaphone and a will of iron, browbeating the best out of a weary company. Tragically, Hedda only played four performances; already, it has become a lost cult treasure. But stay watchful and sober for Moving Spaces' coming attractions.


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