Nov 252016

Alice's Parlor

Key West Fringe Theater: “Alice’s Parlor”
Nov. 16 – 20, 2016
St. Paul’s Parish Hall, 401 Duval Street

Theater Review by Malcolm Willison…….

Have you wondered what women put up with, and then didn’t, a hundred years ago? This year’s short run of Key West Fringe Theater’s season opener was indeed an eye-opener. The annual editions of the Fringe’s “Alice’s Parlor” until this year had been plays by Alice Gerstenberg and her colleagues in early 20th-century Chicago. This year the Fringe, under its new Artistic Director, Rebecca Tomlinson, set up a curtained Black Box performance space in St. Paul’s Parish House, thanks to the church’s Father Larry Hooper and its vestry. The opening night, fifty-some comfortable seats were filled last Thursday, closely surrounding the minimally staged performance area. The costumes were imaginative, even eye-catching, the sets and lighting simple and straightforward.

The Fringe had expanded “Alice’s Parlor” to include an even wider variety of short plays by women, four of them this year from another influential group of women playwrights, the Provincetown Players. In 1916 these women, and a few men, including Eugene O’Neill, moved from their initial space to a wharf in Provincetown harbor, and wrote and produced a whole series of their plays. The women also managed, directed, staged the sets, costumed, lit, and publicized the plays, ordered the necessities, kept the accounts, and paid the bills. (Within seven years the men had taken over the Players in Provincetown and New York City, and run it into the ground. But the women went on to theater careers on Broadway, especially Susan Glaspell, and in community theaters elsewhere, or in journalism, publicity, and other related fields.)

Four of the plays presented by the Fringe last week were by some of these Provincetown women. The first was “Trifles,” based on Susan Glaspell’s newspaper experience and subtly directed by Annie Miners. Two persuasively repressed women (Rebecca Gleason and Jeanne Tindel), sympathizing with the neighboring farmer’s mistreated wife, quietly discover the homely evidence as to who killed the farmer. Meanwhile the Sheriff, the Coroner, and a wonderfully rattled intruder (John McDonald, Bob Rowand, and Don Bearden) in befuddlement search for and ignore domestic clues, while condescending to the women.

In “The Game” by Louise Bryant (she who soon went to revolutionary Russia to find John Reed of “10 Days That Shook the World”–see Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty in “Reds”), domineering Death (John Van Norden) rolls dice with vibrant Life for the lives of despondent Youth and vivacious Love (Deborah Jacobson, Mathias Maloff, Morgan Fraga) while Death argues for his inevitable law against optimistic human possibilities. Cleverly directed by Deb Kik, it’s thick with bromides and one-liners: Love is stronger than death”; “Suicides are all alike”; “What if it’s himself he loves in you?”

The third play, vividly directed by Alicia Merel, challenged Victorian men’s insistence that a man, having first dishonored a woman by seducing her, must then rise to defend her “honor” by denying her identity. But he’s confronted by a bevy of wildly–and beautifully–contrasting women arriving one by one (Joan Sullivan, Mia Shawn, Marisa Faraldo, Monique Griffin, Diane May, Donna Stabile), each insisting that she is willing to substitute herself for the woman whom the accused murderer (John Van Norden again) refuses to reveal out of (misplaced) concern for her “honor,” though being with her would give him an exonerating alibi.

The last of the evening’s short Provincetown Plays was “The Rescue” by Rita Creighton Smith. Karen Leonard ably directed Karen Grant, Susan Butler, and Deborah Snelgrove in effectively portraying an anxious, protective, possessive aunt, an all-knowing family servant, and a repressed young woman torn between a need for a life of her own and her fears of having inherited her family’s suppressed problems.

Alice Gerstenberg of Chicago herself was represented by “The Illuminati in Drama Libre,“ a surrealist surprise from 1920. Rebecca Tomlinson herself directed the highly punctuated, rapid-fire one-phrase exchanges between Alicia Merel and Don Beardon. The full-house audience made what it could out of the highly abbreviated dialogue, and laughed heartily at the abrupt conclusion.

Finally, to honor those men of that early 20th-century period who understood what constraints women were under then, and how they might overcome them, came the final brilliant playlet of 1914 by James Barrie–Peter Pan himself. John McDonald, Ellen Rickert, Stephanie Miller, and Traci Reynolds played the about-to-be knighted domineering striver himself, his first and second wives, and the narrator-commentator, directed in magisterial British style by Richard Grusin. It turns out that the title, “The 12 Pound Look,” is both the weight, the significance, and the cost in British pounds of a typewriter that will liberate more than one woman.

The plays each beautifully made its point in terse, well-crafted and well-presented style, and were followed by an instructive question-and-answer session with performers and directors about their presentation and their message.

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 November 25, 2016  Posted by at 12:54 am Issue #194, Theater, What To Do  Add comments

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