Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Play: Maiden, Mother, Crone

Three Tall Women by Edward Albee, Directed by Allison Narver, Seattle Rep through 28 November.

Not content to merely lead off with God of Carnage described in numerous locations as "Albee-esque" or "Albee-lite", the Rep decides to bring us a big steaming chunk of original, caffeinated, leaded, fully locked and loaded Edward Albee himself.

And it is a reminder that Albee is a much better writer.

One truism I stand by is "If you do something wrong long enough, it becomes a style". So when one goes to an Albee play, one knows what one is getting into - plot is minimal to non-existent, will take place in one room of a house, characters provide their own Greek chorus as phrases are picked up, reiterated, spun back on the speaker, there is a lot of talk, and most of it is about sex and death. To complain about such things is like grousing about the coldness of snow or the blueness of a summer sky. It is just so utterly useless.

So, the plot, then (and spoilers abound). Act One deals with three women, A, B, and C ....

OK, I guess I have to step in here, because by denying the characters names, Albee unbinds them from the narrative flow. That's important, later on, but at the outset it feels like approaching some modern art piece that is a random assortment of pigments, and titled "Untitled, No. 57". OK, back to the plot.

There are three women, A, B, and C. A is elderly, going senile, her body and mind failing her, her emotions as brittle as her bones. B is a middle-aged caregiver, jollying her along, tolerating the abuse, both supporting and mocking. C is a young woman, sent over by the family lawyer, to get signatures on documents that will not be forthcoming, pedantic and confused by dementia. The three spiral through the old woman's stories and are frustrated from accomplishing anything or moving forward. No central plot or theme seems to emerge. Then the old woman has a stroke. Curtain.

Act Two, the three woman are back, but the youngest is dressed as a flapper, the middle-aged woman as a 50s society wife, and after a few moments, the eldelyr woman herself enters in a sensible gown and stands regally over her dying body in the bed. Yes, it all works, and the play proper begins. The first three women you met were just to lay some groundwork - the real play is with these three incarnations of the dying form in the bed. They could be metaphysical echoes of the old woman's life, or the last dying memories caught between the synapses. That doesn't matter, because they rewind the woman's life and, this being an Albee play, talk about death a lot.

The only way to take on Albee is at full speed and head-on - nuance just lies there. And the actors are for the most part up to task. The elder goddess is played by Megan Cole, who snaps neatly between Alzheimer victim to grande dame who know what the others think (for she lived those parts before). The middle child is Suzanne Bouchard, who is a bit too carnivorous in the first act, but carries the pain of her age in the second. Alexandra Travares is the youngest version, irritating as the lawyer, a slender reed in the second. Cole does the best of the three versions (though the Lovely Bride preferred Bouchard better). Nick Garrison appears in a dumbshow role as "Boy" (Yeah, its an Albee play).

It is a better play that God of Carnage, in part because it dispenses with the artifice of a constructed plot. No single event brings together the women of the first act, nor divides the women of the second. At no point can any of them throw up their hands and just leave. They do not have the problem of Xeno's Exit - there is no place to go and no one gets out of here alive. The gravity of their universe pulls them together. No comedy here, but humor is present, and unlike God, you don't hate the characters by the end. And in the end you realize what you have is a single character study, from the outside in (the old woman of Act One is the center of that universe that cannot hold), and then from the inside out.

And after it all, there is a bit more meat here than in the earlier play, more to chew on. It is serious theater with a capital sear, and done very well indeed.

More later,