Back in the winter, a few friends sent me a review of Puccini's sublime opera, La Bohème, performed in Paris and set in space. (Yes. Space.) The review called it "bizarre to the point that it's incomprehensible," and I'd be lying if I said I didn't think of this with trepidation as I attended the Santa Fe Playhouse's Talking With… on opening weekend.
Debut director Tallis Rose, heretofore known in Santa Fe only for her onstage work (which I find particularly good), has taken the seminal Jane Martin play and set it in a circus; as a group of sideshow freaks, to be precise.
For this 1982 collection of monologues by women, critics speak often of a lack of a unifying thread between the 11 characters. To this point, Rose says she was inspired by the photographs of Diane Arbus (d. 1971), who photographed people employed by circus sideshows. Arbus' work, Rose says, pulls the intelligent viewer out of their own head and shows them their own prejudice: The way we feel about the so-called deformity says more about us than it does about the so-called deformed.
"It's how I feel about being an artist—and how I feel about being a woman a lot of the time," Rose tells SFR. "It's not about the fact that I have a vagina, it's the fact of how other people feel about that and how they respond to that; being a second citizen or someone who is disregarded or used as spectacle or entertainment."
The set for Talking With…, then, is a circus. The red and white vertical stripes of a big top tent and glowing string lightbulbs make for a beautiful structure from the theater's technical director, Michael Blake Oldham. A parade of women are then presented to us, with a variety of self-comfort levels and of diverse backgrounds.
The show opens with Lisa Foster's "15 Minutes," firmly placed in a backstage area; she's a performer preparing for a show who at first speaks to an unseen companion in the dressing room with her. She soon breaks the fourth wall (as all the actresses do) and perches on the edge of the stage, asking the audience direct questions. (The audience, sucked in, responds with nods almost unthinkingly.) "I am the entertainment," she declares, frank and sultry, "and when I open my lips, let no dog bark."
It sets a tone.
To run through the best and the not-as-best of all 11 monologues would eat up all of my time and yours, dear reader, but rest assured: There is a lot to chew on here.
Notable was Baby True's "Audition;" the 16-year-old New Mexico School for the Arts student zips through her portrayal of an overeager actress with motor-mouth abilities and fantastic comic timing. I don't necessarily wish she'd slowed down, because the speed was funny—I simply wish the monologue had been longer, to get more of her. Also remarkable was Joey Beth Gilbert's "Dragons." In the theater, it's a good thing when someone's performance makes you physically uncomfortable from its first instant; Gilbert certainly accomplishes this, as a woman who is about to give birth … to a dragon. She's in labor the whole time, and, it took everything in my power not to stand up and leave my seat as she delivered her monologue (and, I suppose, eventually, a lizard-creature).
Firmly placing the 1982 play in time, however, "Dragons" did contain a Jane Fonda reference—and, being the youngest person in the theater, I was the only one who didn't get it and, thus, did not laugh.
We also were treated to a different kind of performance from Santa Fe theater scene staple Marguerite Louise Scott. Scott, onstage in previous productions and in her writing (she's contributed to multiple Benchwarmers and last Christmas' Seasoned Greetings, both at the Playhouse, and will debut her full-length play Flight Plan there next month), struck us as talented, yes, and generally relatable—but ultimately one-noted and sometimes labored. Here, however, as "Marks," she hits a nice stride as a spooky-sexy tattooed lady (think if Mrs. Robinson was kicked out of the bourgeoisie) who takes her obsession with marks on the body way too far. It was a treat to see Scott in a nuanced role it appears she was really able to sink her teeth into—or her knife, as the case may be.
The evening's strongest performance came from Cassandra Rochelle Fetters in "Twirler," what I imagine would be a chapter in As I Lay Dying if Faulkner wrote in a Midwestern baton-twirler as a narrator. What starts as a sweet little piece from a bit of an airhead doesn't take long to become strange and problematic. Fetters, all aglitter, clad in a bedazzled blue leotard, blond hair coiffed, evokes a low-rent Taylor Swift or a high-rent Tonya Harding as she brags about her abilities at twirling batons (what she calls "blue-collar zen"). It's kind of pathetically adorable, at first. But it gets increasingly darker, until the ultimately disturbing monologue ends up a what-the-hell-did-I-just-watch head-scratcher.
Overall, I found that the show actually works best when the character was solidly placed in the dressing room of a sideshow (easy to imagine for the dead-eyed Pentecostal snake handler, nicely portrayed by Lauren Sachs, for example). I told Rose that I appreciated the show's unifying theme, and that while it could easily have become too heavy-handed, that I thought she actually had too light a touch with it. "Scraps" was vacuuming (who would vacuum in a circus?) , "Audition" felt solidly elsewhere, and "Marbles" was not as clearly translatable to a backstage dressing room; they felt out of place in this lineup.
Rose says her leadership and vision for the sideshow was actually met with some resistance. Still ultimately incredibly proud of her play and the actresses involved, Rose says, "I found that I was the one with the one story we were telling, and I had to stick to my guns. There were a lot of feelings about what I 'should' be doing coming from a lot of other people."
She doesn't dwell on the relative smallness of one theatrical production for long, though; soon she launches into the national idea of social unification. "I find that's the issue in a lot of the feminist movement in general … or liberal movements in general," she says. "Everyone's voice needs to be heard and nobody wants to align themselves under one single [cause]. … We're trying to align everyone, and we spend all this time eating ourselves from within."
From the audience, I can only encourage Rose to abandon doubt. This was no La Bohème set in space. The show worked best under a single tent; when it tightly followed the vision with which the director entered the project. With help from her 11 actresses, Talking With… eked out of the realm of necessary feminist theater into that of enjoyable feminist theater.
7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday April 5-7; 2 pm Sunday April 8. Through April 15. $20-$25. Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E De Vargas St., 988-4262; tickets here.