Saturday, November 29, 2003

Three Tall Woman (Ensemble)

‘THREE TALL WOMEN’ thought provoking at Ensemble

In the late 1950s the United States was searching for a new understanding of itself. The country had just been involved in the war to end all warsand was in ascendence as THE world leader. The theatre, along with the other arts, took on the role of creating a look at what the country was and should be. Writers like Tennessee Williams, William Inge and Arthur Miller brought dramatic arts into the world of theatrical realism. By the late 60s, however, with the birth of movements toward integration, stands against repression, and frustration with the political paths taken by the US government, the Theatre of the Absurd reared its head. Represented by the likes of Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee the movement was based in existentialism asking “Why do we exist?” Albee is one of the only writers of that era to remain on the theatrical scene. He is still writing in the absurdist mode. Absurd, in this case, doesn’t mean ridiculous, it stands for “out-of-kilter.” It allows the writer to pen one thing, while representing something else, something with deeper meanings. Think “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Virginia Woolf doesn’t appear in the play, her words are not spoken, yet her philosophy and beliefs are strongly alluded to in the play’s messages of frustration, impotency, failure and futility.

One of Albee’s most recent writings, ‘THREE TALL WOMEN’ continues his absurdist bent. This play takes place in the bedroom of a sick and forgetful old woman, named (A). In the first act she is cared for by a middle-aged companion (B) and visited by a young woman (C) sent by the lawyer to settle some financial affairs. They discuss the human condition with its love, pain, wit, sex, and inevitable decline. At the end of the first act, (A) suffers a stroke that leaves her on the edge of death. The irony of the play centers in the second act when we realize that A, B and C are all the same person at different stages of her life.

As he did in ‘WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, Albee lays bare the pettiness and self deception in our lives. He asks, “What if you could see and speak to the person you once were? What if you were able to speak to the person you are predetermined to become?” What difference would it make in your life? Would you live life differently?

Albee also adds a twist by having A’s alienated son turn up at her bedside to say goodbye. This may have been Albee’s own way of dealing with his negative relationship with his adoptive mother. The son, who speaks not a word in the play though he is on stage for almost all of the second act, has tears streaming down his face as the play draws to a close. Yet another question arises. “Is the Albee’s stand-in crying because of the lack of a good relationship or finally being able to say goodbye? What’s the message for the audience on how to live?

Interestingly, ‘THREE TALL WOMEN”won Albee his third Pulitzer Prize even though it never has played Broadway.

Ensemble Theatre’s production does not quite live up to the words “witty, hilarious, haunting, and swimming in the dark pools of the human heart's most inner secrets,” which were used by reviewers of other productions to describe their theatrical experience. Though they tried valiantly, director Licia Columbi and her cast just couldn’t overcome this very wordy script, full of shaded dialogue and long monologues and little action.

Columbi uses the small intimate space of the Cleveland Play House’s Black Box Theatre well. She continues to create triangles of staging so that all the actors can easily be seen by the audience which surrounds the stage on three-sides. Like the corners of an equilateral triangle, each character has the same strength and power. The reason for this becomes clear in the second act, when we realize that we are seeing the same person at different times in her life.

All three actresses are proficient. Bernice Bolek as (A,) the old lady, swings from mean to manipulating to insightful but sometimes misses the extremes of rationality and irrationality. Sherri Britton as (B), though at times appears to be in control of the character, is somwhat inconsistent, especially in the first act when she fails to establish a clear personality concept. After a stiff and uncertain first act, Bernadette Clemens as (C) blossoms in the second act, allowing for an understanding of why A becomes irascible in her later life. Jesse Kamps portrays the tortured son with amazing control. He flows forth real tears at exactly the right moment.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ensemble seems to be doing its best work since moving to the CPH space. Though it does not have the emotional highs and lows of ‘WHOSE AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF’, ‘THREE TALL WOMEN’ does carry a clear probing set of messages in question form. If you love theatre, and can endure a very talky show, you’ll appreciate the Ensemble production.