Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bowles doesn't bowl you over

If you haven't guessed by now, this is the week the Hub Review beats up on the competition.  This post features my old bête noire, Bill Marx, who let it be known that those of us who were taken with Nicky Martin's Bus Stop had it all wrong - the far better revival in town was In the Summer House, the single play by Jane Bowles (wife of the more-famous Paul), which the BU Fringe Festival is mounting with a student cast through October 23.  To Bill, In the Summer House was "a marvelous script" that is "far greater than anything Inge wrote for the theatre" because it "purposely uses estrangement to examine the ambiguities of social and psychological constriction as well as the smothering attachments of parent and child." He also raved over its "attempt to dramatize a ferocious will-to-control born of spiritual emptiness" which proved "magically unsettling."

Yowza! I'm always up for ferocious, you know, whatever he said; I had to check it out.

So is In the Summer House really better than anything William Inge ever wrote?  Of course not. It's an intriguing piece of juvenilia, but not much more, by a woman (at left) who might have developed into an interesting playwright if ill health hadn't cut her career tragically short.  It's hardly at the level of Inge, and it's pretentious babble to pretend it is. Mind you, it's perfectly suitable for revival by an academic festival, because it's of some academic interest - it clumsily prefigures certain surreal effects of the Theatre of the Absurd.  And of course those with an interest in Bowles are urged to go.

Certainly the script exhibits unusual formal quirks - there's an indeterminacy to its style and action that's original.  But this doesn't really add up to an intellectual armature or anything; we're not talking Beckett here.  Someday, of course, Bowles's drifting, unstable mise-en-scène might have amounted to more; artists often don't truly understand their own material when they begin writing, and watching Summer House, I felt a bit like I was watching something like one of Tennessee Williams's early drafts of Orpheus Descending.  There's a streak of listless unhappiness to Bowles, too, that feels somehow individual.  But there's much here that's awkward and superficial - as well as self-indulgently weird - and at any rate, the conflicts between mother and daughter that Bowles investigates are hardly news.

Still, the production, like the play, had its moments; the cast of BU students was confident and polished, and there was a buzz of talented energy in the air.  But you could tell the kids thought the show was kind of weird, too; there was a suppressed giggle behind everything that didn't allow the alienated twistedness you felt Bowles might be getting at to really take hold.   And director Ellie Heyman's work was inventive but uneven; she likes to "deploy" her "space," which meant actors were often clambering over obstacles or writhing on the floor - but she made up for everything with a truly marvelous final image, in which Bowles's beleaguered heroine leapt into a beautifully abstract sea.  For some, this alone might tip the balance in favor of the show - but if not, don't say I didn't warn you.

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