Mosaic Theatre Company

at Blue Rider Theater

The Mosaic Theatre Company would have been hard-pressed to find two more jarringly dissimilar plays: Escurial is a violent, iconoclastic, hyperstylized play by Belgian symbolist Michel de Ghelderode, and Door Number One is a loosely structured, casually acted comedy sketch by Alicia Burns. But though they’re at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum, the two works do have a common agenda: they examine woman’s place in a male-dominated society. And while the evening as a whole proved shaky, Mosaic did demonstrate two unusual and admirable qualities: first, the courage to tackle a difficult and seldom-produced script–and what could be more difficult to stage than symbolist drama?–and second, an unqualified endorsement of a lesbian-feminist agenda for the theater.

Of the two, Door Number One proved more successful. This breakneck-paced miniplay takes place in the waiting room of a hospital, where Tom (Robin Malcolm MacDuffie) and Celia (Diana Slickman) await news of Rebecca (Madelyn Spidle), who has been attacked and is currently in surgery. Rebecca is Tom’s sister and Celia’s lover–and therein lies the heart of the conflict. Tom feels overwhelmingly threatened by Celia and Rebecca’s relationship. Though he tries to offer some support to Celia, it is clear that he cannot bring himself to accept the legitimacy of her emotions: he is the one in pain, and Celia’s presence somehow cheapens his trauma. “I don’t want to share Rebecca,” he soliloquizes as the play opens. The result is that Tom patronizes Celia–talks to her like a child, repeats insincere, greeting-card consolations, and withholds from her the “really bad news.”

But Celia single-mindedly pursues the truth about her lover’s condition. Doing her best not to plunge some sharp object into Tom’s chest, she tries continually to flag down a quick-moving doctor (Emile Levisetti), who appears and disappears on the periphery of the action with frustrating regularity and nonchalance.

Most remarkable about this play, aside from its clear, articulate script, is how darkly funny it is. Tom and Celia are in a dramatically perfect situation, confined to a room they cannot leave with a person they cannot stand but toward whom they must exhibit sympathy. Trying to make small talk, Tom asks Celia, “Rebecca was a lesbian before she met you?” The audience delights in watching them squirm.

The play kicks into high gear when Tom begins, curiously, to assume other characters–the hospital receptionist, an art historian, a talk-show host. All of these characters seek, in fantasy scenes, to frustrate Celia. Though at this point the play loses some of its consistency, the humor is delightfully disturbing. In the talk-show scene, for example, the doctor (played by the waiting-room doctor) is introduced as “an expert in female sexuality.” He furrows his brow with proper professional concern and says, “It’s hard to say why an attractive woman would be drawn to homosexuality.” Like a true expert, he starts spouting jerry-rigged statistics: “Ninety-nine percent of all sociologists, psychiatrists, and even the president himself, believe that the best thing for a child is to have a mother and a father.”

Like all good satire, the humor in Door Number One arises from familiarity. We have heard and seen all of this before, and the audience is united in saying, “We think these received ideas are ludicrous.” In that sense, Door Number One is liberating.

The play has its weaknesses, though. At times it’s too didactic. Celia at one point begins screaming, above the endlessly chattering men in the talk show, about the potential dangers of disqualifying “alternative” families. Celia’s ideas are interesting, but a stronger playwright would have let us discover them for ourselves. The ending also falls flat, as we are suddenly and nonsensically confronted with the possibility that the “hospital” is really some sort of institution bent on “correcting” Celia. Such a revelation doesn’t add much.

The performances are generally solid; Slickman’s committed, no-nonsense Celia fuels the play. Levisetti’s oh-so-earnest slimeball doctor is charming, and MacDuffie’s wooden Tom bumbles along with delightful tunnel vision. Spidle’s final soliloquy as Rebecca, however, is inappropriately delivered. She talks about the kind of “mundane” violence that is daily perpetrated against women, but she speaks in a swaggering, confrontational, almost self-satisfied manner, as if this horribly sad monologue gives her some perverse pleasure. For the most part Pauline Freund’s direction is on the money; she keeps the pace brisk and delineates with great clarity the sudden shifts in reality.

Escurial, on the other hand, never quite establishes a discernible style. Because it remains poised between farce and melodrama, watching it is an uncomfortable experience. Escurial takes place in a palace, where the King (Levisetti) and his clown, Folial (Spidle), carry on a series of king-and-jester games that never quite become physically violent. It gradually becomes clear that the King suspects Folial of intimate relations with the Queen, and is perhaps trying to elicit a confession that will lead to a hasty execution. But the King himself is impotent and insane, tossing out contradictory commands and finding traitors everywhere he turns. Basically the clown is an adulterer because the King has decided he is. Eventually we see that Escurial is a series of power plays, the King and Folial trying to outfox each other.

According to press material, Mosaic cast a woman as Folial in order to examine “the role of woman in modern patriarchy.” Unfortunately, this examination is short-circuited because the relationship between the King and Folial is so frustratingly muddy. Levisetti and Spidle seem to be acting at rather than with each other, making this already difficult text at times nearly impenetrable. Neither actor is comfortable struggling to achieve the larger-than-life size the play demands. As a result, the play rings false, and the final, brutal climax fizzles rather than explodes.