The monologues themselves are poetic and often quite beautiful. Jones musically repeats patterns, returns to motifs and always keeps us in the present. At times, the lyricism of the speeches removes us too far from the gritty lives of the speakers, but because of the graceful performances of the entire cast, Kelly Kennedy's superb music, and David Bridgewater's masterful direction, the emotional power emerges intact.
The first and last monologues belong to the same character, a young man with schizophrenia (Robert Throckmorton) who is obsessed with visiting the aquarium. He compares the mud puppies with the sirens of literature. He watches the creatures and says plaintively, "Some days I watched them for hours for hours." He tells us that their golden eyes watch back as pairs of illuminated golden lights move behind the reflective backdrop. When we see him again at the end of the play, he's in a mental hospital and incapable of coherent thought. In the only misstep of the evening, Jones uses a theatrical contrivance to have the young man speak lucidly to the audience. The speech is full of exposition and wastes the intensity of Throckmorton's jarring performance.
Between these two monologues, we hear from a prostitute, a couple of alcoholics and people with various mental illnesses. In one of the more touching scenes, the play zooms back hundreds of years when Jacqueline Jones sings about the loss of a child and her ensuing madness.
Matthew Costello has us attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting as he confesses his sins and berates us for our own stupidity.
Kady Fleckenstein is a woman possessed by demons. She communicates to us in a sign language that isn't quite familiar. Even before a narrator tells us her story, we know it is full of terror and anguish.
In terms of sheer stagecraft, the show is fascinating. Bridgewater and crew synthesize dramatic structure where there is little or none. Using an especially tight unity of sound, lights and movement, the play always has something interesting to engage the audience.
Ron Keller's set is simple but effective. Under Lynne M. Hartman's lights, the Barksdale stage is transformed into an otherworldly place appropriate for leaps in time. Not only that, the panels of reflective film and fluorescent lights are used to great effect to suggest an aquarium and then, later, the cold harshness of a mental institution.
The following night, the Barksdale stage was reset for a theatrical dance show, "Picasso's Women: Goddesses and Doormats." There's a large canvas backdrop with an intriguing gash in its lower left corner. Frames hang from the columns at each of the four corners of the stage. It probably wasn't the intended effect, but the overlapping picture frames look like basketball backboards.
The show, created and performed by Kaye Weinstein Gary and Melanie Richards, was inspired by Picasso's wives, mistresses and models. We never see Picasso but his presence is felt throughout.
In the opening scene, the dancers begin to insert themselves into Picasso's imagination. By the time of the Frame Dance, they are collecting themselves into his actual paintings.
Later, they stretch time and space to the accompaniment of the sounds you might hear when you spin the knobs of a shortwave radio. Though the dance seems more appropriate in a play about Dali, it ends with the apparent sacrifice of the women to Picasso and his art.
The evening almost ignites when Picasso in a ponderous, offstage voice says "I like them both." But the energy dissipates until it finally succumbs to artistic pretension altogether. In the next to last scene, Gary and Richards repeat Picasso's specific complaints about each of his women, followed by an ineffective projection of abstract shapes.
The show portrays Picasso as a near-monster to women. This isn't exactly a revelation, and the more interesting question concerns the women themselves. Was proximity to Picasso worth the abuse? There's no clear answer. We get some sense of the pain these women endured, but there's also considerable pride about their association with a legend.
The more playful scenes are the best. The saucy café scene is particularly good. In the Mask Dance, the women wear artist's canvases as masks and rearrange each other's facial features. And the show ends on a high note: In colorful costumes inspired by Picasso's Cubist paintings, Gary and Richards tango to Stravinsky. Like the rest of the show, it is a muddle, but at least it's a colorful, lighthearted muddle. S
"Songs from Bedlam" and "Picasso's Women" run on alternating nights through May 24 at the Barksdale Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. Tickets $18, call 355-2001.
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.