Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of "Tattooed Lady," published by EDGE Philadelphia

"How can someone so marked leave everything behind?" This question underscores and drives the plot of Tattooed Lady, Bryan Clark’s menacing new play, now in production by Black Starr Collaborative.

Two late twenty-something married couples fill their Friday nights in mutual company-seeing movies, debating pop-culture non-issues, and playing board games that test intimacy and shared morals (think scruples mixed with the questions from "the dating game"). Though married longer, Josh (Nathaniel Robertson) and Lucy’s (Amanda Schoonover) answers never match up and they bicker constantly; by contrast, Mark (Gregory DeCandia) and Lydia (Colleen Corcoran) seem the perfect couple, on the surface knowing everything about each other.

But when Lucy-knowing the darker side of Lydia’s past-refuses to ask a particular question about infertility, Mark’s certainty quickly dissolves. When challenged, Lydia fills his ignorance with lies, as he slowly forces her to confront "life before him," a period riddled with promiscuity, drug addiction, multiple abortions, physical abuse, and crime.

Though she claims, "there’s a reason I don’t act that way anymore," her reformed sinner behavior quickly deteriorates into a web of lies and mistrust. Faced with a partner who’s not only hiding massive chunks of her past, but also teetering on the verge of reliving them, Mark does what almost seems sensible-he plays detective, and hunting down her past, only to discover that worse things than he could have imagined about his wife’s past are true.

This set of contrasts-between past and present, a couple who knows the truth and one who doesn’t-finds an unfortunate mirror in the efforts of the cast and director Steven Wright.

Robertson brings all the (quite welcome) humor to the piece as Josh, the unemployed, self and pop-culture obsessed "thinker" (loafer) of the four, adding life to many moments that would otherwise appear dull. By contrast, though Schoonover’s talent glows through all of her lines, the script gives her very little to do but convey information and play half of a pair that constantly fights-with no real purpose otherwise.

Yet the greatest divides lies between the playing of DeCandia and Corcoran. Her magnificent performance (particularly in her heart-rending final monologue) finds little support in her onstage partner, as DeCandia is largely absent-showing neither the despair nor the eventual horror required. While she’s at once erotic, duplicitous, and frighteningly delusional, he’s an emotional vacuum weakening the entire production.

Wright’s direction allows the right touch of humor, solving the problem of the play’s heady material, but he lets too many of the script’s unfinished and broken segments to wander into awkward pauses, giant gaps that none of the actors transition through smoothly.

To be fair, Clark doesn’t make it easy, filling his script with as much speculative Christian theology and moral philosophy as pop culture, trying to tackle too many of the "big questions of life" in one play. In this, he occasionally veers from overkill on his theme to nearly losing sight of it-while nonetheless managing to return (in dramatic action, thankfully) to Lydia and Mark’s story. Here, he deftly explores his larger theme of redemption versus wanting to leave a past buried, and his play is at its engrossing and centered best when he focuses entirely on them.

What comes through the acting and the script the most is the urge to "never date a person who’s suffered physical and emotional abuse." However, that’s both a simplification of, and corollary to Clark’s theme, which is, "though they struggle to pretend otherwise, people who’ve gone beyond a certain point lose their capacity to change, or even return unscarred." While I watched, frustrated and occasionally pissed off at the excruciating behavior and attitudes played out on stage, Tattooed Lady nevertheless forced me to think. And not only did Clark’s writing succeed in compellingly portraying ideas central to everyone’s lives, but he did what many playwrights today fail to do: he took a side on an issue.

Rather than let the audience go home and "work out the ending or judgments for themselves," anyone who saw this play can only haggle over the responsibility. Clark stamped the final word on his script in a challenging drama that confirms the notion that some acts fall beyond redemption, and that once committed, they forever mark a sinner as such. And while his answers (and the conclusion his ending conveys) might enrage certain sensibilities-his play is all the more powerful for asserting them.

Worth seeing.

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