Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Amazons and Their Men

Photo/Carl Skutsch

Jordan Harrison's new play, Amazons and Their Men, is a clever work of fiction that investigates the escapism of film during a time in which the world was being plunged into darkness. Loosely following the real-life attempts of Leni Riefenstahl to film herself as and in Penthesilea, Harrison writes with a director's fluid grace, connects scenes with an editor's masterfully sudden sequencing, contrasts characters in the film with those in the play like a verbal cinematographer, and ultimately comes away with an elegant piece.

Amazons opens with a literal direction, as the Frau (a fantastic and commanding Rebecca Wisocky) describes the scene from the darkness: "Interior. Night." It's a common device of Harrison's to have the characters narrate their own lives, but here, under the context of filmmaking, it seems perfectly natural -- especially for Riefenstahl. As the lights rise, she speaks the poetics of the film, "The camera first sees her reflected in a lion's eye," which enables the play, text spooling through the projectors of our mind, to take on a cinematic layer. We are soon joined by the Man (Brian Sgambati), a "dark-eyed man from the Ghetto" whom she'd like to more than just cast as her lover, Achilles, and The Extra (Heidi Schreck), who has a talent not just for dying, but for dying "inconspicuously," the faithful shadow for her dominating sister. The tale takes on another dimension when a messenger, The Boy (Gio Perez) is cast as Achilles' best friend, Patroclus, especially as the sliver of eroticism between them on camera translates to a world that cannot see such acts as normal, let alone full of art.

As the Frau says, "the real world chatters on," a point driven by the insistent narration of the characters within it (poetically, too, what with descriptions of things like the "incense censing"). And though she tries to build a new one in her film ("Where else will we go when this one ends?"), she is trapped by the further chatter of telegrams, her sister's morality, and the unfolding war, a war which remains always just slightly out of frame (outsiders are always far upstage, shrouded in darkness). Best still, because Harrison's narrative is able to cut easily between time, character, and thought (and better still, to blend them), he is able to control the pace at which that war advances, but without being predictable.

What works best in Amazons and Their Men is the way in which Harrison contrasts scenes from the film with slices from the Frau's real world, a world that -- try as she might -- she cannot control. This effect is bolstered by Ken Rus Schmoll's direction, which clearly cuts between the film's Amazon battles and the play's Nazi shadow, as well as by Sue Rees's rolling platform of a set, a piece that, like the cavernous Ohio Theater, leaves much to our imagination. The contrast is also strengthened by Kirche Leigh Zeile's costumes, which are the bright imaginative fancies of the film world (white Amazonian garb, solid breastplates and red capes), showing directly the way in which the idealisms of the film die when viewed by those who are repressed.

Few plays connect manage to connect theme, plot, and character, but Jordan Harrison, along with the fantastically creative Clubbed Thumb company, has managed it with Amazons and Their Men.

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