Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Theatre review: "In the Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau" at Pittsburgh Playwrights

I attended what I thought was to be the final performance of Frank Gagliano’s In the Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau at Pittsburgh Playwright’s Theatre. As it turns out PPT just decided to extend the run through Saturday March 12th. I imagine that that is due to renewed public interest, given praise from City Paper’s Ted Hoover and the Post-Gazette’s Christopher Rawson. I’ve read both reviews and agree with some of what they say.

Of the three Gagliano pieces offered by PPT this comes across as the most original. It’s called “An unsung voodoo chamber opera.” You can see and hear the reason for the title. Gagliano has written dialogue which calls for characters to deliver such things as arias and recitatives in speeches which have poetic, sometimes rhythmic wording. The heightened nature of what the characters do and say in this production feels less like a play and more like the exaggerated unfolding of something not to be taken literally. I question director Kim El’s choice of how to play it.

The Woman in the Mask and The Tied-Up Man in the Mask come calling on 1900 New Orleans’ voodoo priestess Marie Laveau so that her powers can assist them.

As they verbally ramble in and out of exposition about dark, sometimes lewd, painful events in their past The Woman, an unsuccessful opera singer, is most obsessed by not being able to get pregnant, even though she despises her husband, even though she’s screwed enough men to populate a parish of her own. The Man is a former newspaper music critic whose firing deprived him of prestige and power and wants revenge. He also constantly yearns to be reunited with his young step-daughter. Marie tries to put them together to work out solutions.

At times Gagliano’s script suggests some of Tennessee Williams’ more lurid, garish background stories decorated with similarly florid language and symbolic meanings. This play, as the other two works ,Congo Square and the briefly staged reading of The Commedia World of Lafcadio B, make it clear that Gagliano’s main focus is on words not on well- developed story lines, wherein the characters’ flights of fantasy take off and the solid ground beneath is hard to discern. Hence the characters' bones don’t come thoroughly covered by solid flesh, unlike most of William’s inventions.

The staging by Kim El clearly does not intend literal depictions of anyone in the play, a weak choice. Both The Woman and The Man could be real people despite their ornate language. These are ca.1900 southerners who’d naturally speak that way. She’s one of those typical loquacious belles disguising her vapidity beneath a veil of vocabulary. He’s a writer. You know how writers are, they love the sound and the look of their own choices of phrases, as so many critics are…unlike me….as much interested in how they say something as they are about the essence of the content. Consequently Kim El masks the potential for Gagliano’s script to represent actual people. Jennifer Tober and Mark C. Thompson as The Woman and The Man occasionally and capably peek through the layers of style to suggest someone in there actually exists.

But Kim El and Gagliano are hampered by another problem, Crystal Bates’ version of Marie Leveau. Her performance takes this play into the far reaches of another dimension. She most often appears to be playing sounds rather than the meaning of her words, decorating her speeches with screams, howls and growls constantly obliterating emphases and actual content. You could argue that some opera singers might do the same, more about voice than about character. But this remains a play which is trying to say something about people’s behavior using opera-like means. There is no music, even if the words are chosen partially for their tone. Moreover Bates never stops gyrating her body, like a badly controlled marionette. Given that the play runs about 100 minutes, her performance quickly becomes tedious. Perhaps Kim El got stuck with this destructive interpretation and, unable to control it, built the play’s interpretation around it.

A better director might have been able to make more out of this. But the script, with its rambling ways, certainly doesn’t make it easy and could stand major revision to become clearer as to what Gagliano really wants to say. Words aren’t enough; they have to be about something significant.

In the Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau continues through March 12th at
542 Penn Ave., Downtown. or 412-394-3353.

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