Motherhood is common to women, but the specific experiences involved in being a mother—or mother figure—are as varied as moms and their offspring. Yet there are universal aspects of motherhood, and that's why we can appreciate the cavalcade of mothers currently parading their stories onstage at the Invisible Theatre.
Motherhood Out Loud is a fairly new piece, developed over the last five years under the guidance of Susan R. Rose and the late Joan Stein. It doesn't tell a story conventionally, with characters we get to know as they are engaged in conflict and resolution. Rather, it's a series of brief vignettes, all addressing various facets of being a mom: the mystery (and pain) of childbirth; sending a little one off to school; the difficult role of stepmom—and so on. A total of 14 writers contributed the various monologues and scenes, all of whom are known for other literary efforts, but were solicited by Rose and Stern to weigh in with their stage-worthy personal observations about parenthood.
This may have offered Rose and Stein a few challenges, but the consequence is a delightful little piece, strung together well and given a successful reading by IT.
Lori Hunt, David Alexander Johnston, Susan Kovitz and Barbea Williams are given the task of portraying dozens of characters, each distinct and well-defined, and they do a good job. This sort of setup requires the actors to create an instant personification, establishing place and circumstances with little more than a slice of sound, a costume piece or a prop. It also offers numerous challenges for the designers, who must create an environment that can be quickly transformed from kitchen to park to bedroom to bar, and for the director—in this case, Susan Claassen—who must ensure that each vignette makes its point and flows seamlessly into another, offering the audience a sense of story and creating a whole from the sum of its parts.
The success of IT's teamwork results in an entertaining, light-hearted experience, with just enough thoughtful content to give the piece a bit of heft and to give our hearts a tug.
Kovitz evokes our sympathies as she struggles to figure out if she should let her 7-year-old son dress in the princess clothing he has always favored. We appreciate Hunt as she supervises her child at the park, enjoying a smoke and confiding that, although she loves her kid, she wishes they had met under different circumstances. Williams is hysterical as a Muslim woman trying to explain to her daughter, who has just started her first period, why she can't cook during Ramadan. And Johnston shines as he relates his experiences as a gay father and, later, how he must become the caretaker for his aging mother.
IT opens its season with a short play that covers a lot of ground, with well-composed monologues delivered by a capable cast. It sweetly reminds us that we are each some mother's child.
The Rogue Theatre has chosen to open its season in a grand way with an elaborate production of Mary Zimmerman's telling of the Chinese epic Journey to the West. In subject, scale and style, the production is a huge undertaking, and director Cynthia Meier has shepherded it with an eloquent vision and numerous imaginative flourishes.
Part fable, part parable, part legend, the play is based on stories well-known in eastern Asia, but largely undiscovered in our culture. It's full of the fantastic, rich with myth and dense with moral and spiritual lessons. Chiefly, it's the story of Tripitaka (Christopher Johnson), a monk who undertakes a journey of many years to find sacred Buddhist scriptures, which he carries back to the emperor. He is assisted by an assortment of strange but lovable characters: Pig (Matt Bowdren), Sha Monk (Ryan Parker) and Monkey King (Patty Gallagher). It is, in essence, a representation of the archetypal journey to discover spiritual truths and how they can abide in us.
This is an epic story and an epic production, and the Rogue does itself proud. The large company of actors, most of whom are called on to play numerous characters, perform admirably. It's also a visual delight, with outstanding costumes (designed by Meier) and a simple but versatile set. The musical direction by Paul Amiel, who performs with Julie Wypych, provides a rich texture to the storytelling.
The production is undeniably an accomplishment. However, it also confirms the notion that there can indeed be too much of a good thing: It's just too long. The first part of the script provides engaging fun with the Monkey King (wonderfully wrought by the acrobatic Gallagher) and his search for immortality, and it does help set up what is the core of the piece. But we don't need quite so much of it. It takes a long time for the story to develop, and although it's fun to watch, it winds up impeding the dramatic momentum and diluting the ultimate impact. We are left to search too long for the heart of the tale, which distances our hearts from an emotional investment.
Still, Journey to the West provides a rich theatrical experience, and it leads to what must be one of the most unusual climaxes in theater history: a long moment of silence, in which actors, musicians and audience sit quietly in response to a lesson learned from the play's embrace of the Buddhist scriptures: The divine resides, we are told, in emptiness, formlessness and silence.
Perhaps a bit of the divine might also be present in the form, fullness and faith demonstrated in a solid play-making effort.