Thursday, August 6, 2009

Girl Gown Wild: Kelly Samara's "Being Patient" at Manhattan Repertory Theatre's Summer Fest '09, August 5 - 7

"I'd rather be in the presence of that painting The Sleeping Gypsy, … and see what that does to me," Kelly Samara’s patient intimates from within her flimsy hospital johnny. Dreaming and dream life, and deep wooded magic mountains indeed represent recurrent preoccupations among several in the inner monologue of this character. And she objects to her one-piece wardrobe, especially as described by the staff:

“’Gown’ is what I fantasize about wearing to the Oscars. ‘Gown’ has the word Versace in front of it,” she declares, later imagining herself more glamorously decked out on the red carpet.

And why not? When we meet this patient, she lets us know that she been haunting the 11th floor, where “the cart squeals as it wheels slowly down the empty, odorless hallway,” for “2 months, 3 weeks and 5 days.” Over the course of 45 minutes, she will gossip, ruminate, yearn, opine, muse, define, philosophize, sing, receive an unseen visitor, and toy with a string in an abbreviated explication of cat’s cradle -- all in a series of episodes that suggest the warp of the time that hangs ever heavy on her hands.

“It’s getting to be 6 months,” she declares, about a third of the way through.

Her monologues, all but one of which address the audience directly, alternate with flashes of fierce, hip hop inflected modern jazz and, at one point, balletic dancing to music ranging from dance/trip-hop to "Teardrop" by Massive Attack. Bracketing the piece, and occasionally replacing the dance interludes, poetic incantations underscored by music pit the patient’s recorded voice against that of a disembodied male-modulated speaker with a robotic quality similar to that of the ALS afflicted physicist Stephen Hawking.

Often director AJ Heekin has the patient literally dancing in the dark, dimming Vadim Ledvin’s lighting to cross-fade with reflections from a disco ball for both the dancing and voiceover sequences. (The latter have been designed by sound architect Dave Abel.) This dark matter reinforces the evocation of both the passage of time and the concomitant chafing and discomfiture of the young woman’s spirit.

Under Heekin’s able direction, Being Patient unfolds as a mini gesamtkunstwerk, showcasing Samara’s considerable talents as a theatrical wordsmith, lyrical and physical poet, actor, dancer, and singer. On stage she reminds me intensely of a young Meryl Streep, in facial resemblance, charm, grace, physical and vocal mannerism, playfulness and dexterity.

Talent, stagecraft and direction can, however, only take us so far into the inner life of this patient. In this incarnation, the piece doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. The choreography seems to stand at times arms length from the lyrical language. Samara dances well, but her dance designs don’t warm to, kiss off of, revel or play with the sound or sense of her word images as engagingly as she does. As perhaps the most potentially exciting and distinctive element in a distinguishing work, the dancing bristles with a broader ambition than illustration or embellishment.

“I don’t like the way this world works. I never have. It makes me sick. I think it’s what made me sick,” she says in one of the voice-overs. But Samara never presents us with the ultimate nature of her malady, whether physical, mental or psychological. In her opening monologue, she appears drunk or drugged; intermittently so later, but less so. The locus of pain seems to shift, from hip to abdomen, maybe to chest.

Perhaps its real seat can only be suggested existentially as heart or soul sickness. Could it ultimately lie outside the patient; for example in “all of the emotionally obstructed men in the world” that the author/performer somewhat sarcastically thanks in her program bio? The one monologue not addressed to the audience references an unseen visitor she calls Gabe who has just acquired a dapper dachshund puppy he has named Scooter, along with a new, perhaps problematic, perhaps romantic roommate. Perhaps both?

“Does he scoot?” the patient needles.

Later in the voice-over cited above, the patient, Hamlet like, conjures the release that death seems to offer. But ultimately someone else passes on. She has dreamed of keys, woods, vessels and houses. The yearning and sense of loss remains more hinted at than palpable. “We are porcelain,” the Stephen Hawking voice decides. But hope and longing remain, somewhere inside her doll/patient’s gown “soft, yet unyielding within my desire.” She remains unglued, “unable to mend us in this sweltering air.”

“I have a visitor?” the patient asks/declares at the end, brightening.

Being Patient reveals a theater artist and a team of collaborators replete with fresh talent, enormous energy and interesting ideas at the beginning of what look to be promising careers. If they revisit this patient, perhaps on another floor, they show every possibility of making her whole.

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