The poet Anne Sexton once told her psychiatrist that she thought her only talent might be for prostitution. Encouraged by him to find a different creative outlet, she began writing confessional poetry in 1956 and produced a substantive body of work (while undergoing constant psychiatric care and periodic institutionalization) before eventually committing suicide in 1974. Sexton wrote about living and dying, sanity and insanity; she lets us in on her darkest secrets and her celebrations of body and family. The poet Maxine Kumin wrote: "Women poets in particular owe a debt to Anne Sexton, who . . . shattered taboos and . . . wrote openly about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery, and drug addiction at a time when the proprieties embraced none of these as proper topics for society."
TRANSFORMATIONS AND OTHER TALES
Theater Schmeater Richard Hugo House Ends October 21
Transformations and Other Tales, presented by Theater Schmeater, is an impressively clever performance piece by Schmeater's artistic director Sheila Daniels that jumps between Sexton's poetry and her famous adaptations of Brothers Grimm stories. The cast features an energetic and engaging group of actors who take turns playing characters from various fairy tales (Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince, and others) and, choruslike, speaking and moving in unison to lines from Sexton's poems. This ensemble remains so focused that they seem to take each breath as one; they effortlessly move from slapstick to stone-faced sorrow.
Cajoled by the fiery spirit of Sexton herself (a superb and moving performance by Monica Appleby) in a blood-red dress, the 85-minute production follows the poet's pinnacles of joy and downward spirals of despair and drug addiction, both of which tormented and sustained her for years. Innocent and childlike one moment and offensive and wicked the next, Appleby swaggers and purrs, chuckles and screams, dances and falls. As her manias unfold, it's partly entertaining, partly horrifying, and terribly sad.
Wonderfully specific in its staging devices (masks, singing, dancing, lighting), the play's storybook elements and the poet's simultaneous descent into addiction reconstruct a troubling dual world inside a woman's mind. Theater Schmeater continues to avoid the plague of mediocrity with Transformations, which is the kind of engaging theater that keeps you talking and thinking well after the curtain call. And although Sexton did not choose life, she wrote an amazing letter to her daughter in which she says, "I lived to the HILT." With these words comes a tremendous sense of optimism, however temporary. But Daniels chooses to reinforce Sexton's optimism which, like her tortured life, is captured forever in her poetry.
Seattle Children's Theater Charlotte Martin Theater Ends October 28
Who doesn't like animals? They're not only cute and spunky enough to enchant children, but toss in the power to utter socially penetrating comments and parents take note. It's a formula Disney has been taking to the bank for years, and one the Seattle Children's Theater uses to great effect in its current musical production of George Orwell's Animal Farm. Orwell's allegory of the rise of Stalinism serves as the perfect means to draw in both children and parents and educate them about the power of politics.
There is a line, however, between Disney's intention to cater to children and Orwell's deft use of animals to expose the often childish nature of politics to adults. SCT draws some of this line by wisely recommending the show for ages 10 and older.
In parts of the production more effort is paid to making the animals physically realistic than to making their individual personalities and struggles compelling. Costume Designer Deborah Trout's ingenious device of crutches denoting each animal's two front legs unfortunately becomes a barrier between the characters. At times, the underlying story of absolute power and those who fall under its spell out of fear and ignorance is lost in the details of the overlying animals. However, the fiesty Leslie Law as Mollie, the endearing David Drummond as Boxer, and the convincingly creepy Alban Dennis as one of the totalitarian pig leaders, Squealer, prove exceptions to this rule.
It's refreshing that SCT has faith in its younger audience's ability to intellectually grasp the complex subject. It should also trust our imaginative abilities to grasp the animal motif and foster our emotional connection with more of the human story beneath.
Theater Under the Influence Union Garage Ends October 14
Theater Under the Influence's evening of one-act plays, "Table Work," deftly shows that a table, more than being a mere piece of furniture, is itself a dramatic antagonist. In all four of the very different one-acts presented, the table is the common stage upon which the concept (or pretense) of civility is questioned and closely held insecurities are laid bare. It's ultimately a clever collection of stylistically different and infrequently produced one-acts, all very much worth seeing.
Tea time at the dining room table in Bertolt Brecht's expressionistic The Informer turns from a pleasant evening at home to a bout of manic paranoia when a couple, played with tight comedic timing by Deniece Bleha and Gary Zinter, suspects their young son may be an informer for the Nazis. A moral dilemma is served up in Joe Pintauro's Rex when a SoHo couple sits down to a meal of a Mercedes-murdered pheasant. James Cowan and Shannon Kipp as the hyper-PC vegetarian yuppies deliver the perfect portions of shielded insecurity the piece requires. In August Strindberg's The Stronger a chance encounter in a cafe between a woman and her husband's former lover instigates a rambling tirade of accusations and justifications (brilliantly delivered by Jen Taylor). While silent throughout, Deniece Bleha, as the wife's target, speaks volumes about dignity with little more than the raising of a glass and the squint of her eyes from behind the table.
In the fourth piece of the evening, Sam Shepard's Action, the table becomes a virtual life raft when four starving friends stuck in an isolated cabin attempt to maintain civility in the face of a grim situation. Their ineffectual attempts to stave off hunger and madness are presented perfectly by the cast with a quiet absurdity.