Caroline Kava, Mary Beth Lerner,
and Ellen Greene in Disrobing the Bride
Three attractive women in expensive undergarments take their places at small wooden dressing tables. Behind them stands a tailor’s dummy wearing an old-fashioned wedding gown, and they are surrounded on three sides by flimsy walls papered with a hallucinogenic, pale-gray floral pattern. Almost as soon as they begin to speak, it becomes clear that Harry Kondoleon’s
Disrobing the Bride is not so much a play as a poetic event. When it’s over, you feel not as if you’ve been told a story but as if you’ve just been given a guided tour of a cloud. Parts of the script have been set to exquisite, equally ephemeral music for violin, cello and guitar by Gary S. Fagin. The sum total is something exactly the likes of which I’ve never seen before in the theater. Imagine, if you will, a cantata composed by Kurt Weill for a libretto by Ronald Firbank.
This rococo musical fantasy apparently takes place in the mind of the mythical Bride moments before she enters the chapel to meet her Groom in marriage. It is as if the missing head of the begowned tailor’s dummy had been transmogrified into a small, tidy chamber inhabited by three of the Bride’s selves contemplating their plight in stories, songs, choruses, and monologues. And the lines Kondoleon has fashioned for them are like little pearls – polished, precious, lovingly crafted, each a self-contained item unconnected to the next but together forming a beautiful necklace, utterly decorative yet stunning to behold.
A play by a man about women’s fantasies could be many things: exaggerated, satirical, campy, bitchy, hateful, misogynistic.
Disrobing the Bride is none of these. Kondoleon’s premise merely provides an excuse for the playwright to indulge his wildly romantic imagination while zestfully investigating the tacky myth of American women perpetuated by
Modern Bride magazine and The Newlywed Game. His Brides cherish their illusions at the same time that they are demolishing them, and they do so with the same verve Beckett’s people exhibit, burning with life and humor as they sink slowly into death.
The play’s “Numbers” – whose titles are announced as part of the text (A Normal Bride Speaks, The Mysteries of the Groom, The Visitation of the Three-Headed Bride) – mostly take the form of the fairy tale: “Once upon a time….” The Groom is the handsome prince, the shining knight, the stud, the savior that every woman believes will come her way – the dream that is every woman’s birthright, and curse, and for whom she must only be beautiful, patient and prepared to adore. Or, you might say, the Groom represents that thing (but isn’t it usually a lover?) that all of us wait for – foolishly, of course – to come along and transform our lives, make them real, happy, wonderful.
Nothing is said quite so simply in Kondoleon’s play, and I am hard put to describe just how things
are said. The writing is gorgeous and poetic – not high-flown but dense, musical, outward-directed, vivid, epigrammatic: “To think me vain is to boil down jam to a fragrance.” And the three women are essences rather than characters, their only distinguishing traits being those of the actresses who play them: Carolina Kava, blond and big-boned, the most worldly-wise; Mary Beth Lerner, the smallest, with rumpled face and twinkling eyes; and Ellen Greene, thin, dark, swannish, elegant. They don’t talk to each other but together talk to us; you never know what they’re going to say or when they’re going to break into one of Fagin’s lilting chromatic tunes. The writing sometimes recalls Firbank in its delirium (a description of outdoor lovemaking including “furry stingless bees resting on her nipples”), sometimes Joe Orton in its clipped incongruities (“The Groom is indestructible, yet he collects guns and knives which he hangs on hooks over his stereo”) and often John Guare in the way it speaks aloud the things we only think but never utter.
The Music-Theater Performing Group’s production is billed as a work in progress, though I can’t imagine what’s still being worked on. The piece is performed by a superb trio of musicians as well as the excellent singing actresses, and it is scrupulously staged by the author with Patricia Benoit. Kondoleon is one of the finest young writers to make an appearance in recent years. His
Rococo was done at Yale earlier this year, Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise
showcased last summer, and The Cote D’Azur Triangle tried out at the Actor’s Studio. I saw the first two and they were hilarious. He has a youthful feverishness and verbal playfulness tinged with a somewhat effete sensibility that may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly is to mine.
Speaking of poetic events, Ntozake Shange’s Mouths: A Daughter’s Geography burst into the Kitchen’s tiny performing space with all the instant joy and colorfulness that made Shange known to the world in
for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is
enuf. Five dancers dressed in exotic pastels first huddled in a tableau, then exploded into the room to the rocking beat of African drums – two men and three women, among them Shange herself. I didn’t recognize her at first; she looked shorter and skinnier than I remember, her hair not wrapped but pulled up into two short Minnie Mouse ponytails and her dancing not noticeably less fleet than the obviously professional dancers in her company. And funny! Well, let’s just say that since her debut at the Public in 1976 Ntozake Shange has proved herself not only one of the major poets of the theater but a confident all-round performer as well.
When I heard that Mouths would combine music and poetry, I worried; the jazz/funk band that accompanied Shange’s cabaret piece
When the Mississippi Meets the Amazon severely hampered her effusive lyricism, leaving room only for repetitive clichés. And Jessica Hagedorn’s
Tenement Lover, which opened the program at the Kitchen, exacerbated my fears. Hagedorn’s ambitious multimedia tale of a transplanted Filipino had not yet been smoothly integrated with her band, the Gangster Choir, so the story remained murky and the band never really got to cut loose. No such problems with
Mouths, though. All the music was taped (from Leci Brandao’s Brazilian samba to Lester Bowie’s free sax to Stevie Wonder), and the suite of poems adhered to its own spontaneous and very satisfying structure.
The piece’s 10 sections alternated between a female voice (Shange) and a male voice (Richard Lawson), and the usual subject matter – birth, death, sex, love, hatred – was loosely organized around the poet’s recent experiences becoming a mother and traveling abroad. It was almost disconcerting how quickly the mood of the presentation could change from solidarity with Third World revolutionaries to playful romanticism to brooding at South American squalor. A hilarious account of a poet giving birth (“the baby is confused/it doesn’t know it’s not another poem…she thinks the uterine cave is a metaphor”) gave way to the sorrow turning to rage “about Atlanta”: “cuz she’s black and poor she’s disappeared/somebody heard them screaming/somebody’s walking who shd be crawling.” The most devastating section was “some men,” comic and scathing cameos of guys like the “pretty man” who surrounds himself with “pretty things” (also “beat-up luxuries”) which he treats better than the pretty women he drags through his bed: “he sat up & crushed the frailty of the morning/suck my dick/he screamed, and make me some coffee.”
Shange’s poetry, with its tapestry of imagery and unflinching observations of the ways people love and mistreat one another, is thrilling to hear.
Mouths is briefer than for colored girls, more buoyant than the dark, sardonic
Spell #7, but just as solid, and it deserves to be seen again. The three excellent dancers were Halifu Osimare, Elvia Marta and Ed Mock; Thulani Davis directed the piece, and lighting designer Mike Zwack gave it a wonderful visual identity by bathing it in pale yellows, pinks and oranges.
Woody Allen’s The Floating Electric Light Bulb has something of the same theme as
Disrobing the Bride – everyone in this poor Jewish family holed up in Canarsie tenement in 1945 is waiting for some big thing to come along and change his or her life, whether it’s a lucky number or a lucky break or a chance to move to Florida and start all over. But it has none of Kondoleon’s inventiveness, which I appreciated all the more after watching Allen sweat and strain (rather ineptly) to get his stock characters into place for an old-fashioned and very predictable family drama. Everything in the play was shockingly familiar from
The Glass Menagerie or The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon
Marigolds, and none of it even moved my heart the way these things are supposed to, the way even Arthur Miller’s hackneyed
The American Clock did. There is some tension in the second act’s long “Gentleman Caller” scene between the matriarch Enid (Bea Arthur, who’s first-rate) and Jerry Wexler (Jack Weston as a would-be talent manager whose acts are the kind that play Weinstein’s Majestic Bungalow in “the mountains”) – you’re never sure whether Enid is catching on that this guy she’s getting goosebumps about is a nerd or whether her good-for-nothing husband Max (played by Danny Aiello as if he just walked off the set of
Raging Bull) is gonna walk in and shoot them both with his ever-ready pistol. Otherwise, it’s pretty drab stuff. The title hints at a metaphor too tortured to make any sense, though the stuttering son and would-be magician (a self-pitying 16-year-old Woody?) is marvelously played by Brain Baker. The sorry kid can do the tricks all right, but trying to deliver the magician’s corny standard patter, he manages to make “I’ve made a sucker out of the audience” sound like “I’ve had a heart attack and I’m going to die.”
Soho News, May 6, 1981