“So anyway,” the actress on stage (Bobbi Fouts) begins, sitting behind a spare table, applying make-up and grabbing the audience without introduction, “the guy, this director, he actually used a buzzer. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. He would sit there wearing his Yankees baseball cap and press a buzzer after every laugh line for as long as he thought the laugh would last. Laugh line—zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Really. This was to train us not to step on the laugh. He trained us all right. The show opens. There are no laughs. But we are waiting for…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. A two-hour show lasted three hours while we held for laughs that didn’t exist. I aged seven years in a night. Oh, directors.”
“Talking With…,” at the Palm Coast City Repertory Theater:
- All performances at 7:30 p.m., except Sunday, Oct. 30, at 2 p.m. Performances on Oct. 28, 29, 30, Nov. 3, 4 and 5, at the City Repertory Theatre, Hollingsworth Gallery, at City Market Place, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, behind Walmart (see map). Tickets are $20 at the door. Box office voice mail: 386/585-9415.
So begins the first of 11 monologues in “Talking With…,” the Jane Martin play that opened at the City Repertory Theatre Thursday and runs through next weekend. For those of you who don’t read past the first paragraphs anymore, let’s get the essential out of the way first: If you like good theater, good acting, serious laughs, the occasional tear and surprising insights into the lives of 11 women—from a waning rodeo star to a rising snake handler to a homeless spiritualist to an émigré from Oz to a couple of actresses—you should not miss “Talking With…” You won’t likely see it staged anywhere near here again, and it’s not the sort of play you can afford to miss when it’s so conveniently within reach. There are plenty of laugh lines in this one, no buzzer and no stepping on lines. You’re in the hands of pros.
Off you go now to ticket-land, short-attention-spanners, so the rest of us can get into this play more deservedly.
Like every other work John Sbordone’s new City Repertory Theatre has staged in this inaugural season, “Talking With…” isn’t a play in the traditional sense. There’s no plot, no actors interacting with each other, no single story. Martin is the pseudonym of a man or a woman who’s worked in theater in Louisville, Ky. (Wikipedia rumors the playwright to be Jon Jory, the man behind the Actors Theater of Louisville). She was known in the late 1970s for writing one-women playlets, brief monologues that could work very well as an actor’s scales or as warm-ups to a play the way cartoons used to in old movie theaters, until the Manhattan Theater Club imported 11 of the playlets and turned them into a more or less cohesive whole in 1982.
If the stories behind the monologues are a little uneven—some of the premises are more authentic, less hokey than others—the acting isn’t: nine women, one of whom hasn’t been on the stage since her high school days (Sandy Mullen) and two of whom are still in high school (Agata Sokolska and Leana Gardella) manage to give the play a coherence it would have lacked with weaker performances, since each monologue is part of an unbroken string that tugs at a range of emotions. Credit here must go to Diane Ellertsen’s and Sbordone’s direction, which works particularly well in this sort of experimental workshop-type theater (as it did in “The Laramie Project” and his own “Rockabilliewillie”): he’s able to rein in actors’ wilder impulses with the invisible circle of his controls that widen or constrict around them, depending on their talent, and within which he lets them loose, with great effect. It’s what allows someone like Mullen to take us along on her yellow-brick road in her Patch Adams-like “Scraps” character, She explodes with exuberance past the drabs of her bored-wife (and slightly senile) existence. It’s what gives Nancy Howell’s lonely existence in “Lamps” a measure of warmth that Martin’s contrived story lacks.
“Lamps” is prelude to the most powerful piece of the bunch, at least for some of us here, which is to say most of us in this Palm Coast so rich in dying: Daní Talo’s “Clear Glass Marbles,” where a woman recounts the nobility of her mother’s last days. The title of the piece refers to the 90 glass marbles in a bowl that the dying woman kept by her bedside, each marble marking one of the last days she had to live: “All day, every day, she held one of these marbles in her hand. Why? She said it made the day longer.” At the end of each day, a marble would drop to the floor, bouncing icily a couple of times before rolling off into another one of those silences that have as much voice in this play as the actors’ lines. Talo conveys the effect with perfect-pitch grief.
There isn’t psychological or philosophical depth to these vignettes. This isn’t the spare, poetic intensity of Brecht or Beckett, though “Talking With…” is self-consciously inspired by techniques used by both (the talking directly to the audience, the jabs at social injustice, the bare existence of a set). The monologues make direct emotional appeals that at times flirt with self-indulgence or identity politics—it is a product of the 1970s, after all, an occasional rough-drafting of “Thelma and Louise” that lays it on a bit thick with Bobbi Fouts’s concluding “Masks.” But again, the acting transports you past Martin’s unevenness and limitations.
“This show is all about monologues,” Sbordone told the small audience made up mostly of students at the preview attended for this piece, “and what you can learn here is watch the detail in the monologue, watch the depth of characterization, not only in which the actor gets inside the character, but now, in this very tight environment, how the actor projects that and communicates directly with you in the audience. This is a marvelous exercise in acting for our cast and I hope an instructive one for those of you who will be on the stage doing this.”
Or a very pleasurable one for those of you who simply love good theater and stand-out performances, because there are many here.
Valerie Betts is astounding in “French Fries.” She carts herself out, a homeless bag lady overflowing with unlikely vivacity and glee for the spiritual center in her life, the one symbolized by the yellow double-horseshoe she compares to a rainbow: McDonald’s, where she dreams of spending her days and half her nights, not so much as the fly on the wall as the French fry left behind. She is a prelate of the street, McDonald’s is her parish, and she dribbles one-liner sermons from the bun: “God gave us plastic so there’ll be no stains on this world. You see, in the human world, this earth, it gets scratched, stained, torn up, faded down, loses all its shine. It all does in time. Well, god gave us the idea of plastic so we know what the everlasting was. If there’s plastic, there’s gots to be an eternity. It’s god’s hint. Oh, yeah.” It’s also an original tribute to Walter Brooke’s famous aside with Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” when Mr. McGuire takes Ben Braddock out by the pool during a party to give him that one word revelation: “Plastics.”
Betts’s character is also a social commentator as only the homeless can be: “You ever watch people walk into McDonald’s? They kind of run the last few steps. It’s safe in there. It ain’t safe out there. It ain’t safe out there and you know it. I saw a man healed by a Big Mac.” No need to spoil that sermon’s payoff, which Betts delivers as fiercely as if she’d been the healer. Half her act is in her facial expressions, her devouring eyes, her mouth—a stage within a stage—and the timed silences of a character that should know everything about silence.
In “Audition,” Kelly Nelson—a veteran of the Flagler Playhouse’s Sbordone reign and now the director of Flagler palm Coast High School’s drama program–turns in what has to be the most sustained eight-minutes of hilarity on a local stage by a single actor since the supervisor of elections’ last appearance before the county commission. She’s an actress auditioning for a part, or rather attempting to audition, if she can get past remembering her stage name. Which, thankfully for us, she can’t, because her “human, world name is Marty Tifter,” and her cat’s name is Tat. You do the rest of the puns’ math. Nelson-Tifter manages to go from demented to diva to clunking her cat’s head in with a hammer on the high-wire of her humor (and surprises), daring the audience to watch her take off her clothes for her classical piece or sing “Take This Job and Shove it”—backwards. Good thing your chairs have backrests.
That’s just two examples of many.
We have to consider ourselves lucky to have theater of this caliber in Palm Coast—theater that goes beyond the conventional, the obvious, the tried and tired. It does take an effort to try something so new, especially when it means going to a store-front theater in an art gallery. In a place like Palm Coast it’s like asking an evangelical to go to a Jewish temple and dare be enlightened there, too. In this case it’s enlightenment and entertainment like you’d never expect. The effort is superbly rewarded.
A City Repertory Theatre Production, with Samuel French Inc.
Directed by John Sbordone and Diane Ellertsen
Written by Jane Martin
Monologues and Cast:
“15 Minutes,” Bobbi Fouts
“French Fries,” Valerie Betts
“Dragons,” Evelyn Lynam
“Lamps,” Nancy Howell
“Handler,” Agata Sokolska
“Rodeo,” Daní Talo
“Twirler,” Leana Gardella
“Scraps,” Sandy Mullen
“Clear Glass Marbles,” Daní Talo
“Auditions,” Kelly Nelson
“Masks,” Bobbi Fouts
At Hollingsworth Gallery, Palm Coast, Oct. 28-Nov. 5, 2011.