Sunday, August 27, 2006

Bold Girls, Becoming George

From the Washington City Paper, May 5, 2006.

Laugh During Wartime

By Pamela Murray Winters

Bold Girls

Written by Rona Munro

Directed by Mark A. Rhea

Produced by the Keegan Theatre

At Gunston Theater II to May 13; at Church Street Theater, May 18 to June 11

Becoming George

Book and lyrics by Patti McKenny and Doug Frew

Music by Linda Eisenstein

Directed by Brett Smock

At MetroStage to May 28

Having forsaken my hearth three times in the past eight days to witness tales of other women protecting theirs, I can attest that the goddess Hestia is alive and well and casting her magic feather duster over us. In A Bright Room Called Day, Tony Kushner’s protagonist gives up her career, her loved ones, and possibly even her soul in defense of her Berlin flat. When the lights come up on the Keegan Theatre’s Bold Girls, we see another homey, almost aggressively normal family room. But this one is cluttered, full of the colorful detritus that follows in the wake of children. And it occupies only one-third of the stage: To its right are a chain-link fence, anti-IRA graffiti, a destroyed car, and a road that, more often than not, is blocked.

Sound designer Tony Angelini helps set the scene, even before the lights, with explosions, sirens, and a cacophony of newscasters announcing the latest deaths and maimings. The people onstage yell a lot as well: When Marie (Ghillian Porter) is too busy to discipline her son for buying an illicit sweet, her best friend Cassie (Helen Pafumi) is only too happy to bellow at the kid about what happens to people who eat raspberry ice cream: “Their intestines get eaten away.”

So Belfast circa 1990 isn’t all that different from the gothic South of Flannery O’Connor. In Belfast, though, the violent do bear it away. Marie’s husband has been killed by British soldiers. Her brother and Cassie’s brother and husband are in prison. Marie, Cassie, and Cassie’s mother, Nora (Linda High), along with the younger women’s children, have been left to form a family unit, which convenes in Marie’s home. They seem happy to bicker and reminisce, fold laundry and make tea, and think about the future—provided the future doesn’t go beyond their next trip to the social club.

Rona Munro’s script has many light moments, and those set against the dark backdrop of civil unrest are especially striking, as when the women, dolled up for their night out, fidget their way through the latest of many obligatory minutes of silence for a war victim. A cheery outlook keeps them going: When Nora talks about an assault by the goon squad, she declares, “Oh God, that was a terrible night”—all the while laughing. And when one of them begins to sink, the others buoy her.

The conflict amid what might otherwise be merely a series of vignettes is a mysterious girl who’s been following Marie around. She’s also seen Cassie in a car with a man, doing things a married woman ought not to do. She looks familiar to Marie, who soon invites her in. Ultimately, she brings an end to both Cassie’s dream of escape and Marie’s veneration of her perfect marriage. She dresses in white, but it’s a dirty, torn white. She’s a beautiful waif who talks of a knife as “a wee bit of hard truth you can hold in your hand and point where you like.” Her name is that of a figure from Celtic legend, Deirdre, and it means “dangerous one.”

Deirdre is played by Carolyn Agan, in her professional debut. She’s a physical actor, wearing this role down to her bones. If her line delivery is less remarkable, it’s only because Munro’s script leaves the character dangling for much too long: We’re not sure, at first, whether she’s even really there or whether Marie has seen a ghost. The script’s tone, and that of Mark A. Rhea’s production, is accordingly shifty: from magical realism to realism to something perilously close to kitchen-sink melodrama. It takes until very late in the game for us to see why Deirdre is so slippery and why Cassie is so moody.

But the actors make up for any such deficiencies. Pafumi brings to Cassie a lanky, pouty-lipped sexiness: You can see why the meek Marie would pair up with her. High is solidly believable as the feisty Nora. And Porter is charming, geeky, maternal, and, ultimately, heartbreaking as Marie’s heart is broken. She seems to be someone who will endure, picking up stuffed animals, dishing out stew to the neighbors, and feeding the birds, no matter how many times her rose-colored glasses are ground underfoot. That she, unlike Nora, will never laugh at her own sad stories is why Bold Girls is both poignant and powerful.

Whether Munro’s characters deserve the title “bold girls,” it’s certainly an accurate moniker for another woman on the boards of local stages: George Sand. To hear Becoming George tell it, this semi-cross-dressing literata saved Sarah Bernhardt’s career, women’s below-the-waist couture, and the republic of France—and in MetroStage’s production, all in under three hours.

Yes, it’s a musical, and one shouldn’t look to musicals for history. Honestly, most of the time one shouldn’t look to them for plot—it’s about the music. And if you enjoy a well-written libretto exquisitely performed, Becoming George is a must. Making its world premiere, George offers the sort of strong songs associated with the best of mid-20th-century musical theater, from the rousing “Where’s the Fire?” to the country-dance-like folktale “Black Valley Dragon” to the sentimental closer “Leave Green.” They’re demanding melodies, and the MetroStage cast, all six of them, is up to the task, as is the six-person orchestra. A small ensemble makes sense for the story of one woman’s struggle to shape not only her way of life but also the ability of others to shape their own.

The traditions of hero and heroine, ingénue and juvenile, and comic-relief oldsters are upended here. Sand (Kat’ Taylor) has a lover, Gérard (Jason Hentrich), but he’s more of a plot device than a hero. (In fact, he’s more of a heroine, in the traditional model, since he’s ultimately in need of rescuing.) And although Bernhardt (Meegan Midkiff, she of the astoundingly big voice) and the Prince (Brian Childers) flirt charmingly in “How to Dance With a Prince,” their twosome is soon sacrificed to bigger things.

Sand, nearing the end of her life, simply wants to live simply, with Gérard and her servant, Marthe (Mary Jayne Raleigh), in her country house in France. She’s already an icon of freedom and equality, not to mention a workhorse writer. Her theatrical adaptation of Faust, which was never produced, seems to have been a rare dud, at least in the production we see in rehearsal here, with Alexandre Dumas fils (Greg Violand) at the helm. He wants Bernhardt to swoon and simper instead of opening up the whoopass on the devil, as Sand and, ultimately, Bernhardt would prefer. They journey to Sand’s estate for a working vacation; then the Franco-Prussian War gets declared, and the script’s attention shifts from justice for women to justice for everyone.

The ending is simplistic and silly, so the triumph of the last rousing number, “Cri de Coeur,” isn’t firmly earned. But gosh, is it a nice-looking revolution, from Jen Price’s efficient yet evocative set design to Howard Kurtz’s lavish costumes. Sounds nice, too, especially when the three women sing sister-perfect harmony on songs like “Go Where the Girls Can’t Go.” Michael Flohr keeps the music at the right level: It’s not trying to mimic the sound of a pit orchestra and a cast of dozens. If the blocking is sometimes a bit dodgy—so much bustling around—it’ll probably get streamlined over time.

Best of all is the chance to spend time with Taylor’s Sand, a mature woman who’s neither daffy nor doddering, who swaggers and smokes cigars (pungent ones, be warned) but is never a mere drag king. Taylor’s contralto perfectly matches Sand’s maternal warmth and subversive wit. “My heart goes out,” she says, more than once, “to anything dawning or growing.” What better way to grow old, this feminist-friendly production affirms, than to participate in the revolutions of the earth?

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