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Three excellent plays all deal with perception in entertaining ways

Three highly recommendable plays currently on the Tucson boards happen to deal in quite different ways with the complexities of role-playing and peculiar perceptions of reality. If that sounds awfully intellectual, well, it is. But that doesn't mean it can't also be entertaining.

Indeed, two of the plays--Souvenir at Arizona Theatre Company and The Woman in Black at Beowulf Alley--are almost frothy. But if we were talking about beer, that would just mean that they've got a good head on them.

Of the three, the play surest to exercise the cerebral muscle is Jean Genet's The Maids, presented by The Rogue Theatre. Anybody else would have turned the story of two maids plotting the murder of their mistress into a nasty little thriller, but Genet--no stranger to nastiness himself--has other things in mind.

The maids, sisters Claire and Solange, undertake an odd ritual when their mistress is away. Claire dresses up like Madame, insulting Solange and her filthy class of workers. Solange actually gets off on this, and ultimately, she rises up with her own denunciation of Madame. This seems to be a ritual of preparation: preparation to liberate themselves by killing the haughty Madame.

Solange, it turns out, had a chance to smother her mistress in her sleep, but couldn't bring herself to do it. Claire is more resolute in the plan, and has gone so far as to have the Monsieur of the house arrested, after anonymously denouncing him to the police for some presumably fabricated crimes. (Or are they?) Yet while Solange clearly resents Madame, Claire seems to admire her to some degree; at least, she wants to rise to Madame's position, wear her clothes, wield her authority.

When Madame arrives, she turns out not to be nearly as reprehensible as the sisters make her out to be. Yet Madame, too, is subject to her own fantasies, some of them involving the criminal underworld. Both Madame and Claire are simultaneously fascinated with and repulsed by a class to which they cannot belong.

For Rogue Theatre, director Joseph McGrath de-emphasizes the play's physical brutality (where was the horse whip?) as well as some of the characters' identity confusion. The result may not be as unsettling as Genet had in mind, but it allows the audience (and the actors) to latch onto Genet's many complex and somewhat contradictory ideas without being distracted by gratuitous little shocks.

Susan Arnold's Claire is a clearly a little mad, but neither she nor Cynthia Meier's Solange are completely batty, so the two maids don't seem as confused at the end as the events imply. Sadomasochistic, yes, but quite calculating, and not really wallowing in the filth and degradation they keep talking about. Similarly, Arlene Naughton's Madame spends the requisite amount of time in her own little world, but however selfish she may be, she's not vicious. McGrath and his players give us characters who, in refusing to buckle under Genet's extremes, become a bit more complex, and even more puzzling and intriguing.

As the audience arrives, McGrath, David Morden and pianist Harlan Hokin are undertaking an odd musical revue full of Erik Satie piano pieces and 1940s Continental torch songs meant to evoke Genet's sordid little world. McGrath and friends do so with affection and a campiness so understated that Morden's rendition of Kurt Weill's "Je ne t'aime pas," as he changes from his blond wig, stiletto heels and silver evening gown into a French workman's overalls, manages to be remarkably touching.

A few blocks away at Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, Stephen Mallatratt's The Woman in Black is an English ghost story with greater ambition than you find in most such genre pieces. Indeed, the beginning may be slow going for people who want to get on with the thrills and chills, because the play initially deals with the creation of a way of telling a story and a method of engaging the imagination.

A man named Kipps (played by Roberto Guajardo) has approached an actor (David Alexander Johnston) for advice on how to deliver a long monologue he has written about a frightening experience that has haunted him for decades. Telling the story clearly and systematically, he feels, will exorcise the horror he has internalized; perhaps, after telling his story, he will sleep peacefully for the first time in years.

The actor, however, finds Kipps' account completely ineffective. He immediately begins to cut it down to its essentials and theatricalize it. Before long, the actor has undertaken the role of Kipps in his own story, while Kipps plays all the other characters--well, almost all of them--in the tale.

It seems that years before, Kipps had been sent to an isolated estate with the inauspicious name Eel Marsh to help settle the affairs of a deceased client. The townsfolk are obviously spooked, and Kipps soon learns part of the reason: a child's scream in the night, accompanied by the sound of a distressed horse and carriage, and the malevolent presence of a ghostly woman in black. As if this weren't bad enough, things get much worse, although Kipps will not understand this until long after he has left Eel Marsh.

As directed by Terry Erbe, Guajardo and Johnston carry the evening with a steady sense of character and an undercurrent of dread. Guajardo plays a half-dozen figures in the story and gives each his own physical comportment and English regional accent.

But what makes this play most effective is its atmosphere, which is superbly established by the set and sound design. The set, by Erbe and Stephen Elton, simultaneously evokes a neglected English theater and a haunted house, with its heavy draperies and piles of trunks and other antique clutter. And then there's the glorious sonic element, designed by Jon Marbry. The local company could have rented audio from the long-running English production of this play, but instead put the work into Marbry's hands, with splendid results. Canned effects and bits devised by Marbry himself layer upon each other to create a palpable sense of space, whether it's a London street, an attorney's office or a haunted marsh. This is by far the most sophisticated use of sound I've heard in a Tucson production, outside of Arizona Theatre Company.

Speaking of which, ATC's new show at the Temple of Music and Art is absolutely excruciating. But I mean that in a good way.

ATC is presenting Stephen Temperley's Souvenir, about the real-life tone-deaf socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, who in the 1930s and '40s gave a series of vocal recitals despite being unburdened by talent or even the merest suggestion of competence. The show closed on Broadway about a year ago after a mere 68 performances, but not for any lack in the two-person cast, which has been transferred in superb shape to the ATC stage.

Jenkins made a handful of 78s, which are so awful that they've remained in print as party records for decades; you can still buy them compiled onto a CD. The woman just could not sing. Pitch, rhythm, appropriate tone color, a sense of line--these niceties were not to be heard from Jenkins. Yet she fancied herself a fine singer, comparable (if not superior) to the likes of Rosa Ponselle. Did she hear something in her head that was entirely different from what came out of her mouth? Or was she simply as adept at ignoring her shortcomings as she was at not comprehending her audience's stifled laughter, which she interpreted as delight at her unique stylings? Significantly, she sings Gounod's "Jewel Song" while admiring herself in a hand mirror that isn't there.

Madame Jenkins was intensely serious about her art; she was not a parodist like Anna Russell, but nevertheless, she was a living lampoon of society matrons with an exaggerated sense of their own amateur talent. So Temperley didn't need to do anything to produce a comic theater piece beyond presenting Jenkins as she was, out-of-sync quarter-tones and all. Yet he's done more than give us yet another one-woman show in which some impersonator regales us with the highlights of a dead celebrity's career.

The story is actually played out, with an introduction and punctuation by an actor playing Jenkins' longtime accompanist, a man with the unlikely name Cosme McMoon. And so through the course of the evening, we see how McMoon began as a somewhat opportunistic young man appalled by Madame Jenkins' vocalism but needing the money, and evolved into the woman's indulgent and protective recital partner. By the end, he helps us understand what was truly admirable about this ridiculous figure.

Judy Kaye's impersonation of Jenkins' singing is ... well, under the circumstances, it can't be called "pitch perfect," but it is absolutely, distressingly true to life. Kaye is actually a wonderful singer--try to find her 17-year-old recording of Leonard Bernstein songs and arias to hear how sweetly she has sung in the past--and getting everything so precisely wrong in this show takes a great degree of skill. Kaye is also a sensitive actress, and when she's not making the most of her character's vocal missteps, she reveals a Jenkins who possesses resources of dignity and sincerity. Her enthusiasm outweighs her foolishness.

As Cosme, Donald Corren easily holds his own against Kaye. He plays the piano; he sings; he casts priceless side glances; and he is the very incarnation of a beleaguered gay cocktail pianist. (A persistent rumor holds that Cosme was the stage name of Edwin McArthur, the longtime accompanist of noted Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, but there's some photographic evidence against this, and Cosme seems to have given a radio interview a few years after McArthur died. More likely is the other legend about Cosme McMoon: The frustrated pianist/songwriter wound up running a gay escort service.)

In the end, we have to believe what one character says early on: What matters most is the music you hear in your head, the beauty not quite in your grasp.

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