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Deep & Provocative: 'Two Plays for Lost Souls' at the Scoundrel and Scamp

Two intelligently conceived and professionally mounted one-act plays mark the opening of a new theatre here in Tucson: the Scoundrel and Scamp.

Styled “Two Plays for Lost Souls,” a reference both to the Halloween season and to the psychological, ideological, and cultural dynamic these one-acts explore, this production prefigures the kind of “deep and provocative” (from their mission statement) theatrical venture that the Scoundrel and Scamp, co-founded by Bryan Rafael Falcon and Elizabeth Falcon, aspires to become.

Intelligently playable

The first of the plays, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by the feminist theorist and polemicist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was originally published as a short story in 1892. A frequently assigned text in university literature and gender-studies courses, it has been adapted for the stage (and the screen) a number of times.

I haven’t seen the other versions, but I can’t imagine that anyone has produced a more intelligently playable adaptation than the one Christoper Johnson has devised for this show.

Johnson has preserved most of the language of this disturbing (and disturbed) first-person narrative, converting it, as one might have expected, into a dramatic monologue spoken by “She” (Claire Mannle), a new mother who has been ordered by her physician-husband to “rest,” virtually isolated from everything and everyone familiar, in order to recover from what we would now call postpartum depression.

Optic horror

Confined for the most part to a bedroom encased in a yellow wallpaper she finds progressively “repellent,”“confusing,” and “hideous,” an “optic horror” of “front” and “back” “patterns” that “move” in “torturous" and “torturing” “designs” that “stain,” “streak,” “strangle,” and “smell,” She gradually goes mad, or, in the pseudo-medical jargon of the day, becomes “hysterical.”

Trying to free the woman she now believes is confined behind or within the paper, She peels “yards” of it off the wall, begins “creeping” around the room, “fastens” herself with a “well-hidden rope,” locks the door, and throws the key out the window.

Embodying the patriarch

The only other realized character in Johnson’s adaptation is John (played by Johnson), her husband and doctor, the very embodiment of the repressive patriarch, cleverly rendered here as a shadowy and (mostly) silent presence, sitting behind a black scrim on a chair behind and above his wife’s bed.

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When John does speak, Johnson voices him more as a prescriptively mollifying physician than a loving helpmate—and Bryan Rafael Falcon, the director, and Josh Hemmo, the lighting designer, light him, one-camera movie-fashion, from the side, so that he is half in light, half in dark.

Hideous designs

Falcon’s direction is efficient, sensitive to nuance, and very carefully modulated. There is no blood and gore, no portentous music, no dark and stormy night — only some rather subtle yellow and blue lighting changes to reflect mood.

His blocking here is consistently useful, never fussy and obtrusive, yet he always and appropriately manages to keep Mannle’s increasingly agitated She constantly on the move (standing on the bed, letting down her hair, wandering the room obsessively describing the wallpaper, tying herself up, creeping along the floor).

Indeed, Falcon understands that the horror here is psychological and intellectual, that the wallpaper, like the woman behind it, like the hegemonic power of patriarchal society, cannot be adequately represented, except in the sense that the audience recognizes that the words and action on the stage momentarily make audible and visible what is usually unheard and unseen--because it is always already being acquiesced in by all those persons and things trapped in the “hideous” “designs” of masculinist culture.

Female agency

Mannle’s performance is, of course, the primary vehicle through which the words and actions are conveyed, and it is solidly professional — confident, clear, consistent, intelligent, affecting.

Mannle occupies and traverses this realistically rendered (metal bed with bars and posts, delicate secretary table, mismatched chairs) but almost abstractly conceived space with verbal and physical grace and power.

If John(son) is the embodiment of patriarchal authority, then Mannle and the character she portrays are the female voice and presence asserting themselves (and their cultural agency) against all the odds—the social and aesthetic work “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been performing, in various media, for 125 years.

Weird and compelling

The second of these “Two Plays for Lost Souls,” Deborah Pryor’s “The Love Talker” (1988), is a weird and compelling piece of theatre.

I’m not sure I always understood what was going on, but I stopped taking notes almost immediately and just gave myself up to the thing.

Strange but familiar

There’s a whole new/old world here, strange but familiar, in which nature and culture, identity and difference, gender and sexuality are in constant flux, articulated in a language that is itself mystically unstable and yet beautifully sonorous.

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There are four characters: two sexually mature or maturing sisters (Kate Cannon and Bryn Booth), agitatedly inhabiting an Appalachian cabin; the Redhead (Gabriella De Brequet), a woodland sprite/temptress; and The Love Talker (Larry Gatti), a male faery from Irish folk mythology who seduces women.

The plot, far too convoluted to summarize here, explores sibling rivalry, female sexuality, dreaming and waking, human boundaries, myth and reality, and a variety of other liminal, shape-shifting experiences.

Oddly endearing

What holds all this stuff together, and indeed makes it compelling theatre, is, first, the language, almost Shakespearian in its neologistic, witty, high-and-low blending of semantic registers; then the direction and the various design elements; and, finally, the acting — all of which contribute to the sense that we have entered a complete world here, in all its bewildering and yet oddly endearing complexity.

The director, Bryan Falcon, assisted here as in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Leah Taylor, is a superb blocker: there’s an awful lot of movement here — fighting, loving, slinking, dreaming, tempting and being tempted — and he handles it all cleanly and crisply.

Indeed, consistently meeting the mystifying challenges of the play’s language and plot, Falcon ably and energetically induces his designers and actors to help him create this strangely familiar world.

Natural supernaturalism

John Keeney’s haunting original score, performed on guitar and violin and rooted in Scots-Irish folk and church music, effectively comments on the action.

John Hemmo’s lighting plot, especially the starry night sky at the beginning and end, nicely establishes and reflects the mystical moodiness of the place and the events.

Both Bryan Falcon’s stage design and Elizabeth Falcon’s costume design present interesting and instructive combinations of down-home, backwoods, Tobacco-Road naturalism and artsy, nearly Expressionistic, riotously colorful, at times almost cartoonish supernaturalism — the Redhead’s eclectic clothing and the tree’s Keebler-Cookie trunk and eccentrically winding branch were especially effective and memorable.

Shape-shifting

The acting is uniformly excellent: a young, energetic cast very well rehearsed and thoroughly committed to the peculiar world of this play, to its polyvalent language, shape-shifting characters, and mystically dream-like places and events.

Gatti’s background in dance and body-movement gives the Love Talker a sinuous, silent-movie kind of somatic (in)humanity.

De Brequet brings a disturbing waif-like energy and knowingness to the Redhead.

Cannon and Booth, who must carry most of the action and thus engender most of the audience’s belief in the alternative world of this drama, play off each other intimately and tellingly, sisters trapped in their familial and gender roles, at war with themselves and each other and the enticingly dangerous (super)natural world outside their cabin  — a conflict which is, I guess, at the bloody yet still beating heart of this enigmatic and captivating play.

Roguishness

As the Scoundrel and Scamp’s name suggests, almost all the principals concerned with the company and this its first production have been or still are associated with the estimable Rogue Theatre, with which it shares a building, the Historic Y on Fifth Avenue.

Co-founder and artistic director Bryan Falcon has directed at the Rogue; artistic associate and box-office manager Holly Griffith is a member of Rogue’s resident acting ensemble and co-produces their play-reading series; Taylor has frequently stage-managed and assistant-directed Rogue productions; Johnson is the general manager of the Rogue, for whom he has also acted and adapted dramatic scripts; Booth too is a member of Rogue’s troupe of actors; De Brequet has performed and studied with Rogue; Mannle has also acted with the company.

But, despite this Roguish pedigree and physical proximity, the Scoundrel and Scamp is its own boss (the Falcons built it and run it, and, along with Tyler Meier, the executive director of the UA’s Poetry Center, constitute its Board of Directors) and seems poised to go its own way — to be as intelligently and passionately professional as the Rogue but skewed, I’m conjecturing, to a somewhat more experimental, aggressively contemporary programming appealing to a somewhat younger and more diverse audience.

Whichever way it goes, the Scoundrel and Scamp has made a successful and promising debut, and I am delighted to be among the first to welcome the company to the Tucson theatre community.

Three more (parenthetical) things

(Because of a delay in their construction process and my own over-committed schedule, I could only attend, and review, a preview of this show — not the usual practice in the American theatre. I would like to thank the Scoundrel and Scamp for their flexibility.)

(I have not commented on the Scoundrel and Scamp’s physical space, a thoroughgoing renovation of the old Zuzi Dance Studio facility, because it is still a work-in-progress — but it promises to be a quite comfortable and functional theatre with sophisticated technical capacities and two performance venues.)

(Disclosure: I have acted with and been directed by Christopher Johnson and will perform later this year in a play he is directing for Scoundrel and Scamp’s Studio Series; I have also acted with Kate Cannon.)

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Click image to enlarge

Claire Mannle in 'The Yellow Wallpaper.'

What, where & when

  • "Two Plays for Lost Souls: 'The Yellow Wallpaper' and 'The Love Talker'
  • The Scoundrel and Scamp Theatre at the Historic Y, 738 N. 5th Ave.
  • Thurs, Oct. 26 @ 7:30 p.m. - Preview
  • Fri, Oct. 27 @ 7:30 p.m. - Opening
  • Sat, Oct. 28 @ 2:00 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
  • Sun, Oct. 29 @ 2 p.m. - Closing Show
  • 520-448-3300
  • scoundrelandscamp.org