Solo dramatic performances have a long theatrical tradition stretching back to storytellers like the archimimus of Roman times who recounted legends and tragedies with the help of masks and musical accompaniment. In the 19th century, lecturers and authors like Dickens or Mark Twain, made an evenings entertainment by just one performer acceptable. The art of the monologist grew up around the turn of the last century as part of the spectrum of variety entertainment. After the middle of the 20th century, solo biographical shows such as Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight" became prominent, as well as tours by notable actors such as John Gielgud doing "The Seven Ages of Man." Various other storytellers, notably the late Spaulding Gray, then decided that their own experiences were probably the best source of material, perhaps taking a cue from standup comedy. Nowadays, actors of all ranks and backgrounds routinely have a solo show ready to bring out of the trunk.
The second half of the Boston season starts off three first-rate actresses doing material of their own devising. The ART, which only produced one show of their own in the fall, is hosting three productions in January to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the end of apartheid. Pamela Gien, a former company member, won an 2001 New Play Obie for her 90 minute one woman show, "The Syringa Tree". On leave from the West Coast presentation of this memory piece, Gien plays about two dozen characters, including herself as a child, presenting a very personal perspective on the homeland she left years ago. The show is moving, but essentially safe. Its cruelty is almost hidden behind the script's poetic sense and Gien's considerable charm, not to mention historical distance. Her performance overlaps with Pieter-Dirk Uys's "Foreign AIDS", a political cabaret which will be the opening event in the new Zero Arrow St. black box space, the company's new second stage. His show, in drag, confronts more current conditions in his homeland, specifically the HIV-AIDS crisis and the current governments insufficient response.
The two compelling pieces by Boston actresses, Leslie Dillen and Paula Plum are equally personal, but much more mundane. Both had workshop presentations last spring at the IWPC's "Her-rah" Festival at Wheelock. Both scripts concentrate on the actresses' relationships with their mothers, though Dillen's is much more about her own development as a mother (inadvertently) and a grandmother. Both Dillen and Plum have had considerable success in the past doing solo shows, some using personal material, but never this revealing. Strangely enough, Plum's which is less about herself seems the more personal.
Either script would stand on its own. Dillen, in "Dressed Up!" recounts growing up in Oklahoma playing dressup in a typical midwestern household. We get glimpses of her inner child as she unearths her tutu, suitable for imagining herself as Giselle, a character who comes to symbolize the dangers of love. An unwanted pregnancy during her first year at drama school in New York leads to an unfortunate marriage to a handsome Columbian actor who turns out to be smuggling pot on the side. It all makes good theatre interspersed with revelations about her relationship with her late mother, a 50s housewife, and the daughter from her first marriage. Exactly how much is true can't be determined from her performance, however, which is very spirited and highly professional.
Plum's more serious piece, "Wigged Out!", centers around her mother Rowena's death, at an advanced age, from cancer, after a widowhood of several decades, since the actress' father died of a heart-attack before the age of fifty. Rowena was a strong-willed, self-dramatizing French Canadian married to a hardworking Irish bank executive in middleclass Boston suburb. Plum brings them vividly to life in several brief scenes, interspersed among reminiscences sparked by clothes scattered about her mother's old room, and of course, a collection of wigs and hats. Costumes for each show were designed by Russian-born Anna-Alisa Belous who holds MFA from St. Petersburg and Brandeis, and provide much of the texture for each play, suiting each performer to a T.
The set, shared for both plays with minor furniture variations, was dreamt up by IRNE winner Susan Zeeman Rogers. While not immediately obvious, it's the inside of a giant hatbox whose blue and white stripes become the wallpaper. Ingenious drawers built into the walls contain props. Those up left can even be climbed. Careful lighting was done by another IRNE winner, M.I.T.'s Karen Perlow. Soundscapes and music for both shows were created by the ART's David Remedios. Both pieces were directed by Boston theatre icon and ART veteran, Karen MacDonald, who's performed with Plum in the past. She's helped both her compatriots modulate this deeply personal material. And once again, Boston Playwrights' has premiered a show which really could run longer. Each of these actress/playwrights will probably be able to find additional venues for their work while Giens is slated to become a film and a novel. Taken together they run the gamut of current solo work.
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