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A CurtainUp Review
Grasses of a Thousand Colors
By Les Gutman
The job of describing this newest Wallace Shawn play couldn't be much more difficult. I've settled on the two basic needs identified in the quote above to address part of the chore -- identifying the play's themes, and that works well enough. The bigger challenge is to describe precisely what this play is. It begins as one of those break-out seminars at a convention one might attend at a fancy hotel. As the first of the three acts progresses, it becomes a sex comedy. Later, it will shift, seemingly without warning, into a very adult, surreal fairy tale. Before the play ends, we realize we have been sitting through a morality play. But it never really starts or stops being any of these things.
The form by which the play is executed is more easily explained. Like The Designated Mourner, which I reviewed over the summer (link below), much of the play is delivered in the form of monologues, with the lion's share being assigned to Shawn himself, here as the play's central character, Ben. There is not a lot of "action," nor is there a lot of that other hallmark of conventional playwriting, character development. That may seem surprising, because the play is very long -- arguably a bit too long -- but never dull or boring. It is, moreover, fascinating, remarkable, odd (maybe "bizarre" is a better word), shocking, meaningful, almost impossibly well written ... and unmissable. The last of these applies if for no other reason than that the play would never be the same without Shawn playing Ben, and probably not without André Gregory directing either.
Ben is a physician turned research scientist turned wildly successful entrepreneur. The source of his fame and fortune is his invention of "Grain Number One" which (while "not exactly a grain," Ben admits) is a "nutrient" that revolutionizes the way humans and animals satisfy their need for food. Ben's aims are noble, but that nobility soon evolves into arrogance. It evokes many sayings we like to put in quotation marks, and they morph as the show goes on as well: "It's a dog eat dog world" becomes "Don't mess with Mother Nature." It is not the only shape-shifting we will witness during the show.
But life is not just about eating, we were instructed. It's also about sex. Aided by the three women in his life (and a cat named Blanche), Ben has plenty of that as well -- though he reserves the highest altar in his sexual temple for monosex, as we learn in what may be the greatest tour de force in the play, and maybe even the greatest ode to the male sex organ ever written. From his wife, Cerise (Julie Hagerty), Ben moves on to Robin (Jennifer Tilly), a woman who approaches him at a party when she hears he is a doctor, and she needs one to deal with a troublesome rash. Rose (Emily Cass McDonnell) arrives for an interview with Robin regarding the adoption of the cat (yes, I'm talking about Blanche), and ends up with Ben as well. (I'll leave all the details of Blanche to your imagination, with the caveat that your imagination is unlikely to be as fertile as Shawn's.) These are not instances of serial monogamy, however; often not even for a single night. By the end of the play, all three women will be together with Ben, seated on the sofa. But do not expect something conventionally deviant like, say, an orgy; Shawn has something far more startling in mind.
As a performer, Shawn is simply a gem: endlessly engaging, impishly funny and yet, perhaps most remarkable of all, bereft of any sense of irony. As he is as a writer, Shawn has a most unusual capacity to tread over the obvious, without ever pointing at it. Equally memorable is Tilly's Robin, a most peculiar character given its full force and effect across a wide range of emotions and with often bizarrely appealing humor. Hagerty limns the sadly sensitive, nature-loving Cerise beautifully, in a characterization that can only be fully understood and appreciated close to the play's end. Rose is the least developed of the women, something more of an enigma, and McDonnell, though certainly sufficient, fails to shine as brightly as her cohorts. We never actually see Blanche, though I'd like to someday.
Eugene Lee, Dona Granata and Bruce Odland (who designed sets, costumes and music and sound, respectively, for The Designated Mourner) return for this show. Howard Harrison designed the lighting (which are extraordinarily effective, sometimes in a most unconventional way). Also added, and also excellent, is the projection (including fantastic video) design of Bill Morrison. Most impressive of all is the unified manner in which these design elements integrate into Gregory's direction, which is as smart, perceptive and fastidious as one could hope for. The Shawn-Gregory collaboration, which is the focus of the "project" that has brought us both of these plays in fairly rapid succession, is a wonder to behold.
Like Mourner, Grasses of a Thousand Colors (an expression, by the way, lifted from the (fake) epigraph to Ben's massive memoir) throws enough competing images and ideas at the audience that one fears at times it will all add up to nothing. Yet (as was also the case with the earlier play), I came away from it (and, even more, awoke the next morning) with a very clear sense that from the stew that Shawn spent well over three hours stirring there arose an unmistakable (if discomfiting) flavor that hits far too close to our gut. No wonder, then, that Shawn spends so much of his play fretting about "awful stomach illness" and "digestive collapse."
Review of The Designated Mourner