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|A CurtainUp Review
A Phoenix Too Frequent
By Les Gutman
Christopher Fry is a 20th Century British playwright whose affection for antiquity has drawn him to everything from Arthurian legends to Bible tales. Best remembered for The Lady's Not for Burning, most of his plays are written in verse. The story on which A Phoenix Too Frequent is based is credited to the arbiter of good taste to the court of the Emperor Nero, Petronius.
It's quite a faithful retelling. A grief-stricken Dynamene (Michi Barall) is at the tomb of her recently-deceased husband with her faithful maid, Doto (Mia Katigbak). Dynamene misses her husband so much she has resolved to join him sooner by starving herself to death. Doto starves too, in sympathy and for "her own grief." Nearby, Tegeus (Joel Carino) is guarding six bodies hanging from nearby trees lest their families steal them away for proper burial. Hearing moaning and groaning, he enters the tomb. While admiring the beautiful Dynamene, Tegeus offers Doto something to eat and drink. After resistance, she agrees to have a "smell" of the wine. Soon, she is drunk and passed out.
Meanwhile, Dynamane wakes up and (cutting to the chase) falls in love with Tegeus, whom she renames Chromis (for reasons that would probably have been clearer in ancient Greece). Chromis returns to his post to discover one of the bodies is gone. This is a lapse for which he will surely lose his own life so he decides to take it himself. Dynamene can't stand the thought of mourning two men she loves simultaneously so she cooks up a plan: her dead husband can save her lover's life; his corpse is exhumed and substituted for the missing one on the tree.
One's appreciation for all of this is dependent on one's patience with this sort of relic. Several things aid the effort, but it remains, at times, slow going. Fry curiously dots his poetry with anachronisms and a sort of wry humor (the comic Doto, as an example, has "one for the road", and Stephen Stout's direction gives the production its own hints of contemporary resonance. It also looks terrific: Elly van Horne's precise peach-hued costumes, against the gray classically-impressive steps Sarah Lambert has designed, both viewed in Stephen Petrilli's shadowy light. Most of all, the three actors have a command of Fry's sometimes difficult language that permits it to be delivered in a clear and generally unstilted manner. We've come to expect this high standard of performance from NAATCO, and they don't let us down.
Ms. Barall, the only newcomer to NAATCO, brings a perfect willowy quality to Dynamene that permits her to shift from sufferer to survivor. The engaging Carino telegraphs a romantic combination of energy and restraint. But from NAATCO's co-founder Mia Katigbak comes the evening's biggest surprise, an exuberant, largely comic portrayal that, although not stealing the show, certainly juices it up. It's hard to watch these three together onstage and not engage in a bit of imaginary casting of Romeo and Juliet.
As a curtain-raiser, NAATCO offers the odd pairing of James Saito delivering Chekhov's comic "lecture." As hapless as unhappy, the man strays into a variety of topics, successfully avoiding the one in the title, which had been commanded by his overbearing wife. Saito manages to find all of the character's discomfort, and to convey his physical idiosyncrasies as well.