Ten different stories, from ten decidedly different characters. The trick might be to figure out what links them all.
Maybe nothing at all—maybe everything. It’s part of the riddle that make Jane Martin’s “Talking With…” so appealing.
The 1982 play, a series of short monologue dramas, is onstage through Feb. 10 at Gloucester’s intimate Rogers Street Theatre. Ray Jenness directs five different actors, who each perform two roles.
A rodeo star. A women in labor. A loopy homemaker, who pretends to be an Oz character by day. A baton twirler. A actor, prepping for the spotlight.
This series of eccentrics take the stage, tell their stories for ten minutes or so, and leave. No transitions, no links, nothing that suggests the ten storytellers have anything to do with each other. That’s what makes figuring it out so intriguing.
The performances ranged from tour-de-force to restrained emotion. Not everything went smoothly, but everything did capture the imagination.
Bethany Willcox started the rotating dramas with “15 Minutes,” playing an actor sitting at her make-up table, waiting for the stage call. Ruminating on the notion of performer and audience, she bends her monologue into a tense questioning of the actual audience. In “French Fries,” Annegret Reimer brings a homeless woman to life, exploring her generous opinion of McDonald’s. Laura Crook gives birth (well, almost: we see the final stages of labor) in an uncomfortable bit—can watching someone in labor be anything but? Her baby, which she refers to as “a dragon”—may actually be something more sinister, if that’s possible.
Brenda Pothier plays a former baton twirler, whose craft takes her all the way to the divine. Beth Bevins spins out the story of her dying mother, who retreats to her room in the final months of life, dropping one marble on the floor each day to measure out the final moments.
All this apparent randomness gets doubled up in the second act: Reimer becomes a lamp lady, inhabiting a room filled with light fixtures, each representing someone lost or abandoned. Pothier auditions for a part—in shocking fashion (it ends with her nude, or with her having beaten a cat to death with a hammer. The audience chooses). Bevins becomes the Patchwork Girl of Oz. Willcox bemoans the lost heyday of rodeo. Laura Crooks calmly explains her tattoos and scars—some with harrowing origins.
What does link these stories? They are all women, but that doesn’t really seem to define a pattern. Many of the stories are about transitions—death, birth, divorce—but not all. Many use their main props as symbols: the lamps, the twirling baton. Humor, at least lots of black humor, pervades. Mystery also surrounds the creation of “Talking With…” itself—“Jane Martin” is a pseudonym, the author’s actual identity not yet revealed.
The acting is uniformly strong, and Jenness’s direction stays in the background but is evident in the confident presentation of each monologue. Pothier perhaps becomes the greater of equals, because of her stronger scripts. Her baton twirler is loveably compelling, and her “audition” in the second half veers strangely when she takes a hammer out of her purse (she’s already introduced the cat, in its carrier. The roulette that follows—get naked onstage, or murder the cat—has everyone shifting uneasily in their seats). She also gets credit for continuing to play her twirler part without hesitation when the all the lights in the theater went out—definitely not part of the script.
The simple staging and modest properties fit beautifully in the Rogers Street space—proximity brings an fresh aspect to these peculiar personalities. Some of these dialogues needed more projection from the actors, even in this small room. Despite with some forgotten transition lines, these dialogues moved facilely from start to finish, thanks to some deft improvising.
“Talking With…” plays through Feb. 10 in the Rogers Street Theatre in Gloucester. For more information visit www.rogerstreettheatre.org.