THE SORROW AND THE PRETTY

Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre is an alternative theatre that features experimental work. Experimental work implies that the outcome of the procedure is unknown. Any true experiment poses the possibility of failure.

It is therefore no crime that Planet Earth's current offering, Liberating Mama, is a disaster. Laraine Herring has written a diatribe in three monologues around the undramatic premise that some patriarchal court has sentenced the mothers of three unrelated serial killers to a kind of immortal purgatory from which they cannot escape to the peace of death unless and until they find a "nonviolent man." The writer's hypothesis is that this will be approximately when hell freezes over. Well, the Eagles are touring together again, so maybe anything is possible.

The three actresses represent women whose biographies are detailed in the program. Lisa Morris was born in 1712 in France and bore one Chester ("the Molester"), who killed 27 children. Brenda Bellows is an eternal Southern belle from 1853; her son Kirk killed 77 people. Caryn Tanner is the eldest, arriving from the year 1611 in London, where she bore her son Steven. He killed 42 women. The three women have been sentenced to look for a nonviolent man who will be called "Henry" and who appears in the course of the play as a silent angel of death.

I have no doubt that the author has experienced real pain at the hands of men, and that these experiences have formed a heartfelt antipathy to the male sex. The problem is that in these disconnected monologues, she has not been able to dramatize her concerns in any coherent fashion. Aristotle tells us that the principal mode of communication in the theatre is action, and Herring has provided no action on which to hang her virulent thesis.

There is nothing that the actors can do to pump life into this anemic essay, and director Marian Levine has attempted to find some kind of visual interest in staging nonverbal charades in silhouette to relieve the monotony of the droning dialogue, lest rigor mortis set in among the stunned audience.

Curiously, Arizona Theatre Company is presenting a similar nondrama at Herberger Theater Center named Blues in the Night. This revue also features three unconnected women and a man, only here the monologues are the lyrics of standard blues songs, sung with a kind of "show biz" glitz that dehumanizes any feeling they are meant to convey.

Again, men are the culprits behind these women's suffering, and it is amazing to think how the basic form of the blues has been instrumental in first minting, then propagating, racial and sexual stereotypes. If this has not been so clear before, it is likely because we have rarely been subjected to such a string of blues songs or seen such unsubtle gyrations to accompany the double-entendres as are presently on view. Unrelenting human misery without a context is--well, monotonous.

The great blues singers rendered these same songs with such a personal investment, drawing from a reservoir of private pain, that each song seems to be rooted in a specific human experience. That is the magic of the great blues singers. From their particular pain arises a universal wail we can identify as our own.

While the singers on display at Herberger sing beautifully and with spirit, it is a generic kind of Broadway brass, more reminiscent of the synthetic stylings of a Nell Carter than of the power of a Bessie Smith.

The show has been given a handsome setting, impressionistically suggesting three bed-sitter rooms in a run-down hotel in New Orleans. The set glows with atmosphere, an evocative environment designed by Douglas D. Smith. The audience (mostly snowbirds) seemed to love it.

But don't throw out your Billie Holiday or even your Eric Clapton records yet. You'll need them as an antidote to this superficial treatment of a great art form.--

 
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