Friday, May 7, 2010

Loves of a blonde

There are four more where these came from: Karen MacDonald in The Blonde, The Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead. Photo(s) by Meghan Moore.

Whatever else I may say about the A.R.T., I must admit they made one great artistic contribution to the city's theatre scene.

They fired Karen MacDonald.

And freed from her avant-garde shackles, MacDonald took the town by storm, triumphing at Gloucester Stage, the Huntington, the New Rep, and now the Merrimack Rep. I feel for Ms. McDonald, of course - I'm sure she misses that regular paycheck from Harvard. But we're all so much better off since they let her go. The tragedy is that there's no company in town who can offer her a steady job - or rather will offer her a steady job; both the Huntington and the A.R.T., the two organizations with the financial heft to field a repertory company, refuse to do so for pseudo-intellectual reasons. Which isn't so much a tragedy as a scandal. Another scandal, while I'm on the topic, is the number of great performances we might have had from Ms. MacDonald while her light was hidden beneath the pretentious basket of the A.R.T. In the past year alone we've had at least three terrific turns from her - and prior to that? How many artistic poseurs have obscured her true talent by now? Hmmm . . .

But let's not dwell on the A.R.T. - that way madness lies! Ms. MacDonald is currently lighting up the boards in Robert Hewett's The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, a one-woman show that originated in Australia but has all but taken the global stage by storm. And it's not hard to see why: the script offers a virtuoso actress an opportunity to essay seven utterly different characters (and jump the gender line twice). Better still, it goes somewhere interesting. I don't want to overrate the play - its language is rudely vital but not remarkable, and it has at least one scene (involving a victimized little boy) that pushes the bounds of taste - but it holds you, in the manner that a good story always does. Be warned, however - this is not the broad sex comedy its title seems to promise, although there is some sex (and plenty of comedy). The story revolves around an inadvertent murder, and takes several dark, hair-pin turns; it leads toward what looks like redemption, it's true, and Mr. Hewett's tone is hardly cold; but it's always hard-boiled in something like the manner of an old-fashioned noir.

Some have complained that the author's episodic structure is a mere theatrical gimmick, but they couldn't be more wrong. In fact, Hewett's varying monologues actually put over persuasively his underlying point, that no single perspective can ever serve as an accurate representation of reality. Indeed, the play operates a bit like Kurosawa's famous Rashomon, only in reverse - in that classic movie, we slowly realized, as we listened to its characters, that we would never understand what actually happened at the scene of their crime. In The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, however, we begin to grasp the "truth" of the matter at hand; but we simultaneously realize the people we're listening to - the people who were there - never can understand what actually happened to them. Indeed, as the script develops, we perceive that its "story" is steadily evaporating; almost all its action, it turns out, has been based on misperception. So the play has been about a blonde leading the blind - all the characters' moral decisions, good and bad, have been made in various levels of ignorance. As that eponymous blonde announces near the finale (as she reveals that she's not even a blonde at all): "Nothing is what it seems." Only in the play's last moments, in fact, do its truly good characters recognize each other and begin to grope their way closer in the dark.

For a moral philosopher, of course, this represents a crushing kind of quandary (and who knows how Saint Peter puzzles it out). But for a theatre audience, it's pretty much business as usual - we know that what we're watching onstage isn't what it seems; it's "the lie that tells the truth." Indeed, at the Merrimack, we slowly realize even the scene changes - which at first seem to reveal Ms. MacDonald changing costume from one character to another - are illusions, too. I'm not sure if this meta-theatrical detail was the idea of director Melia Bensussen, but it's in keeping with the general thoughtfulness of the production (for once this director has left her identity politics at the door). And of course Ms. MacDonald is superb throughout - I heard she had some line trouble on opening night, but that was gone by last weekend, and we could simply luxuriate in a long demonstration of the actor's art; as she did in last summer's Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Ms. MacDonald has devised subtly different voices, looks, attitudes, and body languages for every personage she inhabits; she even makes a convincing dude. My favorites among her characterizations were probably the dotty lady down the street, the trashy, double-timing neighbor, and especially the knowing, not-really-a-blonde Tanya. But any student of acting could take any of these seven performances as a master class in how the thing is done. The only question as the curtain fell, in fact, was: where will Karen MacDonald do it next time?