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The script of Talking With looks spare. It is a series of 11 monologues narrated by 11 women--eleven vibrant and madly insightful crazies, characters impossible to ignore or forget. The script looks like a treasure trove for talented actresses in search of audition monologues, but the monologues, strung across the pages of a script look only like the rants of 11 disembodied voices. Such a script does not promise to showcase directorial brilliance.
When director Edith Bishop '00 and a cast of eight actors put up an unforgettable performance of Talking With last weekend at the Ex though, the script took on the trappings of high drama. Bishop and the actors pieced together an astonishing narrative, wrought with brilliant theatrical effects and still preserved the elusive spirit of the 11 characters out of whom the narrative and effects seemed effortlessly to grow. The 11 women still lay at the center of Talking With and a discussion of the play without a description of their characters and the inspired actresses who played them is impossible.
Phoebe Search '00 appears on stage in the first sketch called '15 Minutes." She is an actress putting on her makeup in the mirror--"getting ready," she says sarcastically, "for an evening of 'lacerating self exposure."' When she orders the house lights to come up and inspects the audience, she is not talking at us, but with us (as the play's title promises us she should). This first sketch is crucial; it reveals the intrinsic theatricality of the play. Jessica Shapiro '01 plays the show's second actress--a demented twenty-something with a plan to kill her cat--in a sketch called "Audition." Her sketch, too, makes the audience wonder whom they are really watching on stage and what, exactly, is happening.
Several characters unite when escapism shows its face in "Scraps." Anna Medvedovsky '99 plays the Patchwork Girl of Oz, an unhappy housewife who escapes mundanity by dressing up like her favorite character from the Oz books, while Chris Sahm '01 plays an old woman who'd like nothing better than to live among the clean peaceful plastic in her favorite McDonald's.
In "Marks," Lucia Brawley '00, elegiac and wise, escapes into the memories written in her tattoos. Religion, too, takes several turns under the lens of the play--the first in "Twirler," where Yayoi Shionoiri '00 embodies a melodramatic young baton twirler obsessed--really obsessed--with twirling and the religious divination she gets out of it. Erin Billings '99 becomes a Southern belle-turned-snake-handler in "Handler," and Shionoiri reappears in Dragons as a woman giving birth to dragons (yes, on stage) while appealing to the Catholic saints and religious conventions that she seems to disdain.
In the play's first thoughtful, quiet moment, Tracey Thomas '00, plays, with an uncanny knack for whimsy and controlled grief, a daughter mourning her mother's death in the scene called "Glass Marbles." Search reappears for "Lamps," to become a graceful older woman captivated by the light of her lamp-filled apartment.
The play's only womanscorned is Brawley, who plays a seasoned rodeo-rider in "Rodeo." She is no ordinary woman scorned but a Western firebrand with an accent and a swagger who is furious at the capitalists who bought out her rodeo.
The acting in Talking With was remarkable and utterly invisible. The players gave life to their characters, truly allowed their characters to occupy their minds and bodies for the duration of the play. Such is virtuosity. It is to the greatest credit of the cast that the characters themselves seemed to be the only people on the stage.
What seemed to have been foremost on Bishop's mind was ensuring that the string of monologues felt like a play rather than an unrelated series testimonials. In ways as subtle as casting and as apparent as the set, she successfully resurrected the play's most interesting ambiguities. Three actresses, for example, appear twice on the stage. In "Lamps" at the beginning of the second act, Search wears the costume she was putting on in "15 Minutes." Is "Lamps" the play she was preparing for? Is this the "lacerating self-exposure" she told us of? And when Shionoiri gives birth to the dragons on stage while satirizing the Catholic saints she invokes, we can only guess whether she is an glimpse of the older baton-twirler. And did the embittered rodeo-rider journey though dozens of tattoo parlors to become the woman Brawley also plays in "Marks"?
The characters were also never alone on the stage but were surrounded by usually silent, black-clad figures who, like a modernized Greek chorus, enacted and visually expanded the ideas behind each scene. The characters were another of Bishop's methods of heightening the theatricality of the play.
Also, Bishop set up the theater so that the audience had to walk through an exhibition of art about women, through the curtain, across the stage, and up to the seats. After entering the theater via the stage, the audience can hardly forget that it is observing a play.
Talking With becomes an unlikely acting tour de force whose real star is a risk-taking, assured director.
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