Sweet Sting

MYSTICS
By Douglas Carter Beane
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio Theatre

Does wit punish wickedness, as satirists claim? Or does laughter act as a safety valve, draining off the pressure to take action against knaves and fools?

Douglas Carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown could be cited to make the case either way. The knave gets her comeuppance, the fool learns his lesson, and with that happy ending we can go home secure in the knowledge that, eventually, all's right with the world. On the other hand, duplicity has been unmasked and condemned.

One thing Beane certainly does in Bees is what Hamlet expected the theater to do -- hold a mirror up to nature. Beane's mirror reflects human nature as it exists in certain influential segments of society at the end of the 20th century.

Maybe it exists in most of the society. That's a question worth pondering. But Beane, in his little parable of our time, limits himself to the most rarefied stratum of celebrity-mongering, where all is a whirl of meetings, lunches, phone calls, photo shoots, limousines and trips to the south of France. At the center of the whirl is Alexa Vere de Vere. Alexa catches young people -- writers, musicians, actors, singers -- at the first moment of their celebrity, when they're being hailed as the next big thing. She takes over their lives, rushing them here and there, promising ever more money and fame. When the bubble bursts, they're sadder, wiser and poorer. Alexa has moved on to the next willing victim, eager to share the thrill of fame. That thrill -- not money, which is merely a means to an end -- is what Alexa wants, a perpetual high. And she knows, in this time and place, who and how to manipulate in order to get what she wants.

Alexa's world spins faster than ours. That's how Carolyn Swift plays her in the Rep Studio -- sometimes too fast for these aging ears. The first act is a whirl of wit and wonder, driven by Swift's performance. The second act takes us behind the curtain, where Swift's virtuosity shows us Brenda from Pennsylvania transforming herself into Alexa Vere de Vere. The first act is amusing. The second act is a brilliantly trenchant critique of a culture in which appearance is more important than reality because appearance is reality.

Jason Bowcutt plays Evan Wyler, the hot young novelist ensnared by Alexa, with the look of a deer bedazzled by headlights. In multiple roles, Daryl D. Vaughn and R. Ward Duffy bring human warmth to characters who educate Evan. Jessica Jaques and Tracy D. Holliway complete the gallery of hangers-on and wised-up victims in Alexa's world.

Director Steven Woolf constructs that world with precise clarity. Within a proscenium of Warhol-like portraits, fashionable black dominates Bill Clarke's set and costumes, with touches of faux-industrial decor, all given protean fluidity by Glenn Dunn's lights. David Van Tieghem's music wraps this world in sound with perfect pitch.

There is less than meets the eye to Alexa Vere de Vere. There's more than meets the eye to As Bees in Honey Drown.

-- Bob Wilcox

THE SCREENED-IN PORCH
By Marian X
St. Louis Black Repertory Company

The St. Louis Black Repertory Company's second production of 1999 is Marian X's The Screened-In Porch, an urban melodrama set in the present. The central character, Hattie Rains (superbly performed by Linda Kennedy), widow and mother of grown children, meets her childhood friend Lucille Withers (Velma Austin), who moves back into the neighborhood after a successful career as a writer, teacher and therapist in the big world. The two are delighted to rediscover one another, until Aleta (Ret DeBrown), Hattie's youngest (and troubled) child, shows up, three months after her release from a drug-treatment program, pregnant. Mother and daughter quarrel; old friend befriends daughter; old friends quarrel, too; then everyone reconciles. Fannie Bell, at the top of her form, plays Miss Mary Woodson, a grumpy-old-unmarried-woman Greek chorus; Jo A. Cross has a nice cameo as a young, hassled neighborhood mother; and Jerome Morgan plays several different men quite effectively.

The problem is, Hattie, the character Linda Kennedy plays, is real (or Kennedy makes her so), whereas Lucille, the character Velma Austin plays, is a stereotype (and Austin can't get beyond it). Indeed, I think the playwright is very ambivalent about educated, high-achieving women, for Lucille, who talks sense when she's talking with Hattie, says the most specious bullshit, especially when talking with men. She has two sex scenes: In the first, she pleasures herself with a man less than half her age; in the second, a colleague rapes her. Though both scenes have their credibility, both times Lucille seems unreal, talking body language far too rapidly, speaking portentously and pretentiously at the same time.

Things are too often taken up, played with and dropped, only to be picked up again, rather crudely. And too much goes on. In Act 2, for instance, after a nicely structured semireconciliation between mother and daughter, daughter disappears, and we are given some highly charged, understructured happenings, after which daughter appears again in a sort of symbolic ending -- and the grim past disappears. Lucille learns her place in the scheme of things, daughter reappears fulfilled and everyone is going to live happily ever after.

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