trodding the boards
theatre & the arts
Volume 22/Issue 5/2004
by Patrick Shannon, III
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
The Oldest Profession
..."Veraís not just a woman with a past, sheís a woman with an epic..." (from The Oldest Profession, by Paula Vogel)
The Oldest Profession by play wright Paula Vogel (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for her play about a pedophile How I Learned To Drive, one of many prestigious awards she has received in her career) was recently performed at Loyola University www.loyno.edu in the Lower Depths Theatre.
Considering the recent Fascist verboten stance of "The Powers That Be" at this respected Roman Catholic University when their theater department attempted to produced a very well written feminist play, aptly titled The Vagina Monologues, makes one wonder about the mind set of those running RC academia. One would think that the Roman Catholic Church has a rather sexually confused sense of morality relative to its own problems among the priests in charge. To forbid a feminist play about the subject of a females reproductive organs, and yet allow a feminist play about five elderly prostitutes (who profit in the use of these organs) also becomes not only ironic, but sadly comical.
Nevertheless, the recent production of The Oldest Profession, about five very elderly whores who sit on a bench in New York Cityís Central Park circa 1980, and discuss the trials and tribulations of their contribution to the Protestant work ethic of American by supplying a necessary social service seems a remarkably brave show to have actually gotten to the Loyola University Theatreís Lower Depths Stage. Jesuitical logic defies intelligent understanding.
In spite of this "campus control insanity and insult to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," brilliant Director, Lane Savadove, presented us with Ms. Vogelís play about the oldest profession with a crisp sense of style, excellent pacing, wonderful staging, and a sensitive understanding of the subject matter, proving this time that he does understand the directorial concept to be found in the old adage "less is more" when he wants to. Unlike his recent highly overwrought and misconceived direction of local playwright, R. J. Tsarovís Swerve, Mr. Savadove was able to get The Oldest Profession, on the stage - simply, and it was interesting to see that he can reign in and control his vast and incredible imagination when necessary. The show was a wonderful display of not only his talents, but those of every actress and member of the technical crew.
There are five female characters in the play, the youngest somewhere in her seventies and the oldest, perhaps in her late eighties or her early nineties. Each is a prostitute that has been in the business since they were young ladies working the New Orleans red light district, Storyville, until it was closed during World War I once again by the hypocritical "powers that were." Itís now circa 1980, and these working girls are still together and living in a cheap hotel in New York City. Their clientele are now as elderly as they are and even more in need of love, affection, and perhaps just a little understanding and attention, if not sex. At $8.00 a trick, or client, itís easy to understand that these working women are not exactly living high in New York City. They each share memories of their long time association as they sit on a bench in Central Park discussing and arranging their daily work schedule. Itís a touching and heartbreaking study of human nature written by a master craftswoman.
Davia Olson played Vera, Becky Johnson played Edna, Audrey Bales played Lillian, Kaity Talmage-Bowers played Ursula, and Liz Ladach-Bark played Mae. Each of these young actresses performed their parts with a remarkable finesse that clearly delineated the unique individuality of each role, all of which was wonderful to witness. During the course of the action, one by one they each succumb to death, because of old age leaving behind in our minds five touching well acted memories of their various characters.
There was one great problem, however, and that was trying to allow oneself the necessary "willing suspension of disbelief" often necessary for a total enjoyment of the theatre in all its diversity. There was no way I could accept the fact that these fair, wrinkle free, beautiful young actresses were supposed to be very very old, especially seated about six feet from the park bench upon which all of the action takes place. In spite of this distraction, they were able to make the play work where it matters most, in the heart, even if not in the logically inclined mind.
I think perhaps the makeup and hair design by Tammie Mehreb somewhat missed the mark, although the costumes were not too distractingly anachronistic for these elderly ladies of the boudoir. Their costumes, designed by Tammie Merheb and directed by Kellie Grengs, were uniquely conceived for each character and worked well in that respect, but one would not expect quite so much neatness and nicety and perhaps a bit more tawdriness - a look of frequently well worn and somewhat fading and less stylish design. After all they were all originally from New Orleans, the legendary and imaginary land of the greatest of self-deluded, poor, yet imaginative Blanche DuBois of Tennessee Williamsí play, A Streetcar Named Desire... "Oh, please donít rise, Iím only passing through," to quote that symbolic line of Ms. Dubois in the last few moments of his play before she is taken offstage by a bull dagger attendant and a "kind gentlemen" doctor to a mental institution and the probable death of her own self-created dream world and herself.
"And so it was I entered the broken world To trace the visionary company of love, its voice An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled) But not for long to hold each desperate choice." (The Broken Tower by Hart Crane)
Scenic Design by Georgia Gresham was in keeping with Director Lane Savadoveís crisp simplicity of concept. It consisted of a park bench in New York Cityís Central Park, behind which was a projector screen upon which we saw a birdís eye view of the skyscrapers of Manhattan. As the action moved along, we saw a glimpse of the four seasons in the park, and slides of one of Manhattanís most famous city cemeteries, eventually covered in snow surrounded with "bare trees where late the sweet birds sang." No one missed a cue and these technical devices were well thought out adding greatly to the playís subtle and sensitive plot. Audio design by Tammie Merheb was perfect consisting of the familiar city sounds of Manhattan in the background, people chatting, and passing through the park where the old prostitutes met each morning to sit on their bench and discuss their daily job appointments to the background sounds of children laughing and car horns honking, as the seasons passed on from Spring, to Summer, to Autumn and finally the white clear Winter of a first snow in the Big Apple.
The lighting was also perfectly and beautifully done by Jacqueline Steager, especially the creative idea of using a series of spotlights in the ceiling of the theater that showered a brief bright green light upon each character as they walked away from the bench and across the staging area in front of the audience, symbolic of their final day of work: Death waiting in the wings, as it were, as they left the stage.
This was a very fine production in almost every respect and itís an insult to the theatre going community and the intelligence of anyone in our town that the Loyola Theatre Department was forbidden to produce The Vagina Monologues. (Maybe if the play had been either My Johnson Speaks or Puppetry of the Penis it would have been performed without question. Since this is an organ that the people in charge of Loyola University are more comfortable with. Especially, like the former President of the University who is involved in difficulties because of his alleged interest in this body part on another person not of legal age, and the same gender.) Perhaps when "the powers that be" on campus finally face reality, and continue to be subjected to the humility of their present state of certain world reknown litigations, we will not have such senseless censorship.
We were highly privileged to have experienced this play about five tender hearted old whores written with a delicate style and wonderful use of language by Ms. Vogel. It is suggested that certain faculty members awaken and let the Theatre Department enjoy itís First Amendment Rights. If you donít like the subject matter of contemporary theatre, stay home just donít go see that particular show. Go back to trying to decide how many angels would fit on the head of a pin. Even a Jesuit priest can understand that logic, I would hope.
CORRECTIONS AND CATCH-UP COMMENTS:
The Merry Widow
In the previous issue of Ambush Magazine, my review of the 24K gold production of Franz Leharís The Merry Widow as done at the Jefferson Performing Arts Society credited certain excellent performances to the wrong actors. There was an insert in the original seasonís program book that listed all of the performers again, including the names of two characters that were different from those listed in the official program guide. I did not get a copy of this insert in my program book. The wonderful and charming character work of Njegus was not done by Bryce Bermingham, but by Scott Sauber, and the role of General Kromov was not performed by Colman Reaboi, but rather by the ever astonishing actor, Dr. Roland "Butch" Caire, Jr.
I also failed to praise the brilliant work of the Stage Director, Jayme McDaniel, who placed his actors in the best possible juxtapositions on the large stage of this fine organization. My sincere apologies for these errors.
The Mercy Seat
Space limitations did not allow for a total review of the fine production values of The Mercy Seat written by Neil LaBute and locally produced and directed by one of our townís most supremely talented actors Karl Lengel at NOCCA/Riverfront www.nocca.com, in the Nims Black Box Theatre.
Mr. Lengel directed this fulgurous show with the clarity of a faultlessly cut pure white diamond. His staging of the two actors on a perfect set suggesting an upscale New York City apartment by David Raphel was hypnotic as we watched the mesmerizing performances of Ryan Rilette as Ben Harcourt, and Abby Prescott as Ashley Nolan.
In this play which takes place a day after the great tragedy of 9/11, we become engaged in a plot about the eternal and bitter battle of the sexes. As two perfectly selfish and soulless New York type yuppies argue with each other about the explosions of their pathetic and immoral relationship, in the background of this drama we hear and see footage of the even greater battle of the terrorist mind set as New York Cityís two World Trade Centerís Twin Towers collapse into a pile of fiery rubble resulting from the mindless and ageless battle of one political mind set against another.
It was a distinguished and disturbingly fine production with an all star technical crew which included lighting designed by Dan Zimmer, costumes designed by Cecile Casey Covert, and the most necessary sound/video designed by Jason Knobloch.
The memory of this shining production of The Mercy Seat is forever engraved in my memory as one of the most astute and unforgettable productions of a season of many splendid shows.
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