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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
Art, Life, & Show-Biz
By Brad Bradley
This show is not for the casual theatergoer, but then is anything presented by P.S. 122 or its older cousin La Mama fashioned "or a casual theatergoer?" However, for those with passions for musical theater or soap opera (ergo Ms. Gallagher), for avant-garde theater (ergo Ms. Pashalinki) and/or for modern dance (ergo Ms. Setterfield), the program becomes for the viewer a virtual private and candid interview with the subject at hand. Each woman is an assured and unmistakably individual performer, and Mr. Gordon takes shrewd advantage of his prior connections with all the women to mine their aforesaid candor. The end-product combines the virtues of a New Yorker profile or a Barbara Walters hour-long television interview with the dramatic techniques of A.R. Gurney, especially as seen in his plays Love Letters and Ancestral Voices. Like classic journalistic profiles, Gordon has insisted in-depth interviews, and like the Gurney plays, he has his cast (himself included) use scripts on stage, all the while essentially ignoring them except as surrogate hand-held prompters.
Gordon begins his so-called "non-fiction play" as a lecture, exploring how art and life can derail one another. He wants life to tell its own story, and he has scripted the material so that his invited trio begins to punctuate his monologue, even as he seems to be getting immersed in his own reflections about creativity. At first, these interruptions are amusing distractions, rather like the moving trays of hors d'oeuvres that beckon our attention at cocktail parties. But soon the ladies' interruptions become more substantial appetizers, and for many in the audience, even significant main courses. As arranged by Gordon, they mix into a hearty goulash. Yet here, gentle reader, I suspect you will be better served by distinctly separate brief samples of each of the ladies in the trio.
Valda Setterfield seems too soft a personality at first, yet ultimately delivers a commanding dignity. In her notable career in modern dance, she most famously performed as a member of the Merce Cunningham company, and also was a part of Ballet Rambert in her native England. Her decade-long involvement with Cunningham's company came to an end on the heels of a devastating auto accident, yet she has gone on to appear in numerous plays and films as an actress. Not incidentally, she also is Ain Gordon's mother.
Helen Gallagher's independence and passion for dance both came early. She confesses to catching the theater bug as a result of seeing the original staging of Oklahoma! Still constantly at top energy, probably not even she was surprised to transform from a chorus girl into a leading lady/comedienne early in her long career. Her performing highlights include High Button Shoes, Pal Joey, No, No Nanette and Ryan's Hope on ABC-TV for fourteen years. However, one highlight of her recollections is her miserable experience with a flop musical that almost destroyed her stage career. Her lifelong avocation is teaching performers at HB studio. As her greatest influence, she cites director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, even while dismissing him as "a mean, evil man," an apparently not uncommon assessment by his colleagues.
Lola Pashalinski, perhaps surprisingly, comes off as the sweetest of the trio. She discovered theater in a school production of Our Town for which she refused to dress in a skirt. Her passion for opera opened the door to her passion for women, and her devotion to opera understandably is heightened in works with cross-dressing roles. Such musical inspirations apparently gave her the comfort to "come out" long before such behavior was socially acceptable. In one of her countless plays with Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, the hillbilly musical Corn, she described herself as "the Bette Davis of rock and roll."
These women are all great company for an evening, and Gordon does them more than justice in deftly weaving their careers and lives into a diverting insider's tapestry of life in the performing arts. The numerous projections from photographs and other visuals that he created in collaboration with Darren Chilton are a great visual asset to the performance. But Gordon would serve himself better by putting his own professional and personal life on hold for dramatic purposes, for his veteran cast appropriately has plenty to offer for the present evening and his autobiographical asides are mostly distracting. While Gordon's mixture of A.R. Gurney and Barbara Walters is successful, his attempts to replicate John Leguizamo or Spalding Gray deserve a separate forum.
One of the best lines in Art, Life, & Show-Biz speaks for troupers, egoists, and escapists everywhere, and should be retained for perpetuity: "The show must go on, except for when you can STOP it."
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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