Saturday, July 17, 2010

GORMANZEE & Other Stories

Photo/Scott Snelling

"You sick fuck," says one of the characters, in one of the three of playwright Anna Moench's shows being performed as part of GORMANZEE & Other Stories. You could just as easily say, "You poetic fuck," about another of the shows, or "You sad, romantic fuck," about one of the others. Because in each of these diverse shows, well-directed by Meredith Steinberg, someone is getting fucked, and whether or not you like or connect with any of the material showcased here depends on how much you like twist endings and cheap tricks, because the material itself is really, really light.

This is especially true of the lengthy first half of the show, "Bill It," which is a rather glib slice of one night at an upscale reservations-only restaurant. There are several dance numbers before and after each scene, but these movements--while neatly tied to the beat of each musical selection--do a poor job of telling a story, and the individual scenes--while finely acted--aren't exactly the most original or revealing things ever staged. You might call this Sketch Theater, for while it's got the outlines of something more, it's too hasty and filled with absent, unfilled spaces. For instance, Sarah (Sarah Elmaleh) and Jean Ann (Jean Ann Douglass) spend a great deal of time showing us their false smiles and Vanna White gestures, talking over one another as they welcome and then delay each of their guests. But it's not until we see the way Head Hostess Jean Ann snidely puts down Sarah and waitress Molly (Molly Gaebe) that there's any spice in the meal. Also, she's missing her just desserts, and that leaves the meal feeling half-finished. This goes double for a meal between an aspiring designer, Dave (Dave Edson), and a rich but belittling potential employer, Nathan (Nathan Richard Wagner), and his toady, Edward (Edward Bauer).

The other portions of "Bill It" revolve around misunderstandings and Tales From the Crypt twists: two rich socialites Claire G (Claire Gresham) and Claire S (Elisa Matula) brag about their passion for Bodywork, only to find that they're talking about quite different hobbies; a fresh-raw fruitarian bugs the shit out of her date; and a girl is creeped out by her date's angry insistence that he never gets upset. This is a little too similar to the final play of the evening, "GORMANZEE," which is not only implausible (on many, many levels), but unnecessary, even as a reflection of how disgusting some of our dietary concoctions are. There are some odd aesthetic choices in each, too: the two Claires wear hideous leggings that don't match their wealthy accents and the use of shaving cream in "GORMANZEE" seems a bit unnecessary given what's to come. An audience can only suspend its disbelief so far.

The danger with a partnership like anna&meredith is that the playwright (Anna) isn't being forced to finish her thoughts, because the director (Meredith) is doing too good a job of filling in the blanks. (The directorial decisions for stage blood are praise-worthy and well worth being left a secret.) It's a problem, because if Moench were pushed more, she might write more solid, original scenes. For example, the heart of "Bill It" stems from the way waitress Molly turns from relishing the fact that her ex-boyfriend Nathan is being stood up by his current girl to the way she finds she doesn't hate him--and he doesn't hate her. (There's a twist here, too; but this one seems both earnest and earned.) Likewise, the best segment of the night, "The House on the Shore," is a delicate memory play, in which Gart (Wagner) sits in a house that is slowly sinking (along with the rest of the flooded Earth), unreliably remembering the woman who now haunts him, Tess (Matula). Not only is the story inventive and cleverly told, but Steinberg's spine-to-spine movements further that story, and the language is genuinely haunting. ("And they say the mountains are safe the mountains are the place to regroup and rebuild and I say the mountains are teeth biting the sky in half and no place for a man to lay his head at night, still and silent, glowering, grudging, nothing like the sea.")

It's fine that anna&meredith are exploring, trying out a variety of things, and enjoying their own work. But it's important that they now learn what's working and decide upon what kind of story they want to tell. Because right now, GORMANZEE & Other Stories isn't really succeeding at telling any story: it's just talking a lot.

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