LITERAL TRANSLATIONS (OR, WHAT WE THINK WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE)
Pidgin English Productions
at Splinter Group Studio
Kerry Reid has given her one-woman show Literal Translations the witty subtitle What We Think We Talk About When We Talk About Love. A more apt one would be “What We Talk About When We Think We Talk About Love.” For lurking behind this series of monologues about flawed and failed heterosexual relationships–some autobiographical, some not–are more complex problems only tangentially related to romantic love.
Certainly the first monologue Reid delivers–a somewhat too long section from Eudora Welty’s retelling of the Circe episode in Homer’s Odyssey–is as much about power, self-esteem, and manipulation as about love. In the tale Circe falls in love with Ulysses only after she discovers he’s immune to the potion that turns his crew into swine. And having given her heart to Ulysses, she learns that often as not married men return to their wives.
Every time I hear Circe’s story, I feel for this strong, independent woman–described in some accounts as a goddess, in others as a witch or a sorceress–who suffers so ignobly because she’s drawn to the wrong kind of man. (Though at least she doesn’t throw herself off a cliff when Ulysses leaves, as Dido does when Aeneas pulls the same stunt in the Aeneid.) I felt for her again when Reid, an unpolished but earnest and likable actress, told her story. Welty’s subtle, sophisticated, highly literate prose doesn’t work particularly well when spoken aloud, but Reid’s show wouldn’t work half as well without it; the story clearly introduces the basic themes Reid explores in the autobiographical portion of the evening.
These autobiographical monologues are looser than Spalding Gray’s but clearly in the same seminarcissistic, self-revelatory tradition. Without much affectation, Reid makes it clear she’s well read. She cracks wise about prominent authors–at one point calling Ayn Rand the “Ivan Boesky of letters”–and illustrates her story with quotations, flashed on the wall, from works by Joyce Cary, J.D. Salinger, and John Berryman, among others. Like Circe, Reid finds herself–again and again–involved in relationships that damage her self-esteem. Unlike Circe, she turns her experiences into entertaining tales.
“Requited love is a short circuit,” Samuel Beckett once wrote, a point Reid proves over and over as she unravels her funny but touching stories, about boys who freak when confronted with honest feelings or who treat Reid as more of a pal than a lover. Her most touching recollection is of her friendship with a photography student who spends most of their time together telling her how much he’s inspired by and obsessed with his model. “I was amusing, and she was a muse,” Reid quips, at once revealing and denying her pain in a rhetorical two-step that only draws the audience closer to her.
Reid tells her autobiographical tales with such disarming ease and self-assurance that it’s hard not to feel a little annoyed when, after 30 minutes or so of loose, entertaining, and witty material, Reid ends the show as she began it–by performing other people’s stories. Here she tells the story of Mary and Martha’s meeting with Christ, recounted in the Gospel according to Saint Luke.
Reid’s version wittily hints that Mary’s attraction to Jesus may have been more than spiritual–“I deserve a messiah as much as the next woman”–but this tale lacks the fire and pathos of her autobiography. How could anything Luke wrote about Jesus be as compelling as a woman admitting in a quavering voice that for a time she thought, “My love wasn’t a gift worth having.”
With a little judicious pruning at the top and bottom of the show and a little more confidence in her own material, Reid’s Literal Translations could be nearly as compelling as the most successful of homegrown autobiographical performances: Donna Blue Lachman’s The Uncensored Stories.