Opening Nights: The Swan

An absurdist look at woman/bird-man love.

In Greek mythology, Zeus wooed and "won" Leda in the form of a swan. In Elizabeth Egloff's 1989 absurdist mishmash, another swan—known as Bill (Martyn G. Krouse)—crashes into a woman's living-room window, determined to love her. The time is now-ish, the place a Midwestern suburb; and the woman, Dora Hand (Tracy Leigh), haggard side dish of married Kevin (Daniel Wood), of course resists, but only a bit. Over 90 minutes, man and bird-man vie for Dora's affections with glowering looks, a mop, an ax, a gun, a steak, and a curiously swanlike white wedding dress. The script's leaden language occasionally takes flight, but unfortunately neither Egloff's plot nor Artattack's lugubrious production follows suit. The worthy concept of an emotional "rape" (in the classical sense of someone's being carried off) gets muddled by seemingly arbitrary tone and motivations. What is Dora doing with emotionally stunted and ethically crummy Kevin in the first place? Why does she keep Bill around after he repeatedly menaces her and proves to be irritating company? Most past productions of the play addressed the second question by having Bill appear stark naked when he molts from bird to bird-man, thus overwhelming Dora (and the audience) with the majesty of his physical and sexual self. Such visceral, wordless splendor would be welcome here. But director Selby (who uses only one name) keeps the pants on, perhaps due to the venue's close quarters. The result feels castrated. Absurdism is tricky to pull off well, requiring strong, clear narrative authority to push the audience past its own disbelief. Egloff via Selby doesn't inspire that confidence. During the first skirmish with the swan in her living room, the terrified Dora receives a close friend's phone call. Most of us would say "Help, there's a giant bird in my living room," but Dora just says "I can't talk right now." Multiple times. The stoicism might be admirable if it were believable, but Dora's a neurotic mess. Sometimes Bill needs help unscrewing the tops of milk bottles, sometimes he's able to do it himself with his hands. And for some perhaps metaphorical reason, neither Dora nor Kevin ever seems to be carrying a key to the house, which means that nearly every entrance is preceded by "Open [or "unlock"] the door!", which gets tiresome after the umpteenth time. Nano-length scenes feel like cartoon sketches, making one or two quick points each before averting tension by cutting the lights. In the "plus" column, Justin Lockwood's well-built sound design of car motors, breaking glass, and rain expand the IKEA-simple single set into a believable little world. Crouse's Bill manifests precise birdly mannerisms (neck tics, itches, preenings, hissing) and tosses some pretty poetic language Dora's way. Though he supposedly learned to speak by mimicry, he comes up, without help, with such pick-ups as "If you were mine, I'd swallow you like a stone." Eventually he dons a dapper hat and suit and seduces Dora with stagy tango moves...and Italian. The only remotely fathomable explanation is that Bill represents a love so unfettered that it's exempt from the obligations of anatomy or mundane plausibility. It seems he's a projection of Dora's desires, yet he manifests to Kevin too. Interspecies love is nothing new in theater—Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? being an effective example. But Albee kept the living, breathing animal offstage, in the realm of imagination, where Egloff puts it squarely in front of us. It's a bolder and riskier choice, but in this case—with pants on—far more problematic.

 
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