[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-LANDSCAPE.html]


by John Guare
Directed by John Mossman
The Artistic Home Theatre
1420 West Irving Park Road / (866) 811-4111
Through March 18, 2007

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
February 11, 2007

Two sisters, an adolescent son, two deaths, a detective, a nutty ex-Good Humor man dressed in white, a gaggle of teenagers and assorted figures from memory comprise the characters and the cast of “Landscape of the Body” at Artistic Home. This theatrical adventure has some bumpy moments courtesy of the playwright John Guare while the performances are consistently solid by the stalwart members of the Artistic Home company and guest artists. The ultimate effect: moments of brilliance in a pastiche experience.

Betty (lovely Michele Graff evoking Jennifer Jason Leigh in several recent roles) and her son Bert (Kevin Mose) come from rural Maine to Greenwich Village (the press notes tell me this is set in the 1970s – perhaps the cultural references that emerged for me were precisely on point) to find Betty’s sister’s Rosalie (delightful Betsy Elizabeth Ann McKnight). On the way, Rosalie explores new avenues, Bert encounters new temptations, Betty learns that she is more flexible than she ever imagined, and a wide range of wild characters enter and leave the stage.

The plot I found to be a little bit “Hard Core” (movie with George C. Scott as a Puritan Midwestern father who goes to the big city to find his runaway daughter), a little bit 1970s “Columbo” (see the bumbling detective crack wise and ask hard questions), part Tennessee Williams (and just who is the visiting Southern gentleman?), and part Beth Henley‘s “Crimes of the Heart” involving sisterly bonds and a crazy series of events. The plays framing device of a ferry ride involving two of the characters, before we enter the play’s flashback world, evokes in tone and verbal rhythm the dialogue of William Holden’s floating corpse in “Sunset Boulevard”. And there are additional genre references. The effect is disconcerting for the viewer overall.

As is often the case with Guare, you will find lines that stay with you, unencumbered by connections to particular characters and scenes – and this is my primary problem with this play. Multiple characters crack wise, providing us one character split among many. Does everyone share the same references to old movies? (Really … Hispanic scam running businessman and a detective and a simple woman from rural Maine?). Guare’s deft hand with these quips and frequent non sequitur references to movies and bits of culture are always entertaining to this movie loving gal, but end up feeling like a distraction from whatever the main goal of the story line might be. Or is this the point? I find myself laughing and immediately wondering about the connection the joke may have with the detective or the Mainer single mom in our story.

And you will find yourself remembering quotable quotes, but not who said them. “I’d like a laugh track around my life.” Was this the stripper sister or the good girl sister visiting from Maine? “It’s amazing how a little tomorrow can make up for a while lot of yesterdays.” Again, a fabulous line, but who said it? Does it matter? To this reviewer, it does.

Before the first act curtain we have the lovely line “The only landscape worth looking at is the landscape of the human body”. This thematically adheres to the characters of our stripper sister and one adolescent girl character struggling with body image and our cross dressing (or multi-layered dressing) scam running boss. The line suggests something but it is unattached. In an oddly violent scene later in the play one of the adolescent characters suddenly plays realistically the cry of most adolescent girls: “I want my body to stop what it’s doing – it must be a sin.” What are we to make of this? My favorite line of the play might be “The dreams we have as kids are the dreams we never get over” but for the life of me I cannot recall which character delivered this charming nugget. My frustration could be primarily with genre and style, but I felt the dark themes were a difficult “fit” with the farcical structure of the play, and most dramatically with these last issues.

There are some wonderful bits of stage business in this production. At one point we’re on a ferry to Nantucket. One character is throwing bottles with messages into the water and actually throwing them, but instead of these glass bottles hitting the stage or a pool of water, passing actors catch the bottles as thrown, entering from one side of house only to deftly catch the currently airborne bottle and quickly exit on the opposite side. A nice touch, elegantly choreographed. Another sweet scene that stands apart from the whole business is one of the scenes of banter among Bert and his new city teenaged friends, involving funny and believable dialogue that rings true for smart and irreverent teenagers. The proprietor of the pseudo travel agency Raulito (Christian Castro) who once employed Rosalie, then employs sister Betty, creates a few greatly entertaining scenes of shtick. This character first appears in a suit and tie, with a spangled party dress over it, with no real explanation. Are we to take him as living between two worlds? This actor is engaging and charming (was seen locally recently in “Guantanamo” at Timeline and other fine productions) and made a great deal of this role that could have felt like merely camp. His performance didn’t feel like camp, but I’m not quite sure what it was. Of this performance and of the play as a whole I continued to ask: Is this comedy? Is this farce?

Music and sound design is full and lovely – from waves lapping against the hull of the ferry boat to street sounds to strip club background music, to original musical interludes. In fact, in a song between Bert and his Aunt Rosalie, a musical interlude is strikingly reminiscent of the Dory and Andre Previn crafted 1967 theme song to the movie “Valley of the Dolls“: “Gotta get off, gonna get / Have to get off from this ride / Gotta get hold, gonna get / Need to get hold of my pride.” The play then closes, again, with the sweet love theme instrumental that is eerily reminiscent of this same theme. One wonders if this is intentional.

There are enjoyable moments along the way in the performance of this play, but the entity at root feels like it’s trying to be both resonantly meaningful and “let me entertain you” farce. I wanted the fabulous cast to be able to pick a team.

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 11, 2007)

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