REVIEW: Three Tall Women (Court Theatre)

  
  

Three strong women champion Albee’s tale of end-of-life regrets

  
  

Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women features Mary Beth Fisher (Woman B), Lois Markle (Woman A), Maura Kidwell (Woman C).  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

  
Court Theatre presents
   
Three Tall Women
  
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by
Charles Newell
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through Feb 13  |  tickets: $10-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Edward Albee’s 1994 play Three Tall Women breathed new life into the legendary playwright’s career. Although works like Zoo Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf were instant classics, many thought Albee had finished cranking out the good stuff by the 1990’s. The doubters were put in their place with this meditative piece, a half-exorcism, half-eulogy closely linked to Albee’s own experiences with his deceased adoptive mother. Finding himself king of the American absurdism hill again, Albee took home a Pulitzer prize and found receptive audiences for his later plays, which include The Goat, or Who is Silvia? and The Play About the Baby (both of which also garnered many awards).

Mary Beth Fisher (Woman B), Maura Kidwell (Woman C) and Lois Markle (Woman A). Photo by Michael BrosilowThree Tall Women examines a life, but with a fractured and multifaceted lens, Albee’s trademark style. The three women are really only different versions of one, an old former socialite on her deathbed. The woman, a semi-fictional representation of Albee’s own mother, lived a life rife with pleasures and regrets. She came from poverty and learned fast about love and society, and ended up a wife and mother (with heavy doses of infidelity and familial strife). Although the play eschews any neat moral, you leave the theatre with a new comprehension for how the seconds of life tick away.

The first act rolls along slowly. The protagonist, A (the remarkable Lois Markle), sits on her bed, recounting and rambling about her 90+ years of life experience. She is attended on by B (the also remarkable Mary Beth Fisher), who is some type of live-in nurse. Also in the room is C (Maura Kidwell), a lawyer’s assistant intent on getting to the bottom of some financial inaccuracies. The trio trade barbs and gems about life, but mostly they listen to the occasionally incoherent tales of A. Death is a constant presence, but it isn’t the main focus of all conversation. The first act characters dust the inevitability of death under the rug until right before intermission.

Dying, life, and regret become the center of Act Two. A’s condition has deteriorated. She lies in a bed, wired to monitors. However, Albee has the woman—or women—discuss her life in front of the body. A, B, and C are now several personifications of the same woman. C is the 26-year-old girl, B is the embittered 52-year-old spouse, and A is the finale of the woman’s life. They argue, teach, and advise. C can’t believe she becomes B, and B can’t imagine how she transforms into A. Yet they all face death together. The comatose A has a visit from her son (a lineless Joel Gross), which inspires completely different reactions from each incarnation.

Director Charles Newell assembled a shining group of women for his cast. Markle, who was referred by Albee himself, gives a magical, heartfelt performance. Fisher keeps up with her, packing her portrayal of B with sass and vulnerability. Kidwell stumbles in the first act, unable to give C the layers required. However, any young actress is going to look unpolished when placed on-stage with such seasoned performers as Markle and Fisher. But Kidwell picks it up after intermission and holds her own.

In general, the first act feels clunky and languid. Act Two has a completely different energy, and Newell isn’t afraid to try some risky staging. It pays off. The latter half is exponentially more engaging, especially with Fisher’s and Markle’s talents.

It really doesn’t matter much how biographical or fictional Three Tall Women actually is. Albee, Newell, and the cast find universal truths in the woman’s story. We all are going to die, no matter our age now. It is one thing about the future we can be sure of.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women features Maura Kidwell (Woman C), Mary Beth Fisher (Woman B), and Lois Markle. Michael Brosilow.

  
  

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Review: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Court Theatre

Brilliant and Balanced, Ma Rainey Raises the Roof

 Olglesby, Roston, Johnson, Smith, Alfred, Young, Cox and Spencer - H

Court Theatre presents:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

by August Wilson
directed by OJ Parson
runs thru October 18th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

 

Alfred and Johnson - V In the Court Theatre program introduction to their production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, director Ron OJ Parson contrasts his previous experience at Court with August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. “Working on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has been a different kind of experience . . . it feels to me like the work of a younger playwright . . . Ma Rainey’s is fast and brash like Levee, its central character.”

Not a bad analogy, between protagonist and play. But it’s not as if Wilson’s first major drama shortchanges the audience in layers of dilemma and meaning. Parson, for his part, deliberately and meticulously draws out every nuance and tier possible between those characters with power and those with less, and less.

John Culbert’s weathered, stressed and architectural set design surely assists Parson in establishing the play’s hierarchies of privilege and power. At its very bottom, the musicians wait and wait for Ma Rainey (Greta Oglesby), the Mother of the Blues, to arrive and hold court—at least for as long as the recording session goes on.

Time and generational differences, as much as races or genders, hold the crucial center to this play. The older musicians of Ma’s band, Toledo (Alfred H. Wilson), Cutler (Cedric Young), and Slow Drag (A.C. Smith) have long since learned how to bide their time by swapping stories and friendly BS; choosing the path of least resistance seems to be their life-long technique for deliberately surviving arduous, uncertain times and territory. But their low-key endurance may be too much for Levee (James T. Alfred), who aspires to make his mark with his own jazz compositions and band. To him, such coping strategies smack of compromise with the thousand indignities being black was (is) heir to.

Oglesby and cast - H Levee has far more going on with him than simple impatience or cocksure youthful arrogance. Parson’s direction starts Levee off at a low boil; but it is Alfred’s control, intensity, and fire which succeeds in pulling off Levee’s assault on Cutler, and his rant against God, with crucifying realism.

The play inexorably builds to this, through all the excruciating little deferrals and detours of Ma Rainey’s recording session. Humorous as it is, given Ma’s demand that her stuttering, country nephew Sylvester (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) intro her lead song, running underneath it all is the realization that Ma’s moment of glory is fleeting.

The recording company’s neurotic owner, Sturdyvant (Thomas J. Cox), insistently presses for fresher, faster music, whether he will pay decently for it or not. The money and privilege that Ma is flush with cannot last forever. There is something quite Biblical about this aspect of Wilson’s play, just as there is something downright Greek tragedy about Levee railing against God. It’s here we truly see the marks of a younger playwright.

cast of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - V Oglesby II - V

Oglesby, for her part, plays Rainey with willful blindness to the impending demise of her career, which doesn’t endear her to the audience, however deeply we identify with her pent up rage when she signs the release forms. She may lord herself over Levee and thwart his ambitions; she may boss her band, her entourage, and her manager; but the limits she bumps into truly close around her. Play the queen as much as she may, true power, which can only come from control over her own work, is not hers to have in this world. The same power denied her, is also denied Levee; what should make them natural allies ends up setting them against each other. The generational divide between Levee and the band also holds devastating consequences.

Overall, this production is too fine for a little critical kibitzing about pacing in some scenes. Court Theatre has a near perfect production on its hands. The entire cast is evenly and indisputably excellent. Even small roles leave lasting impressions, like David Chrzanowski’s smug Policeman, Stephen Spencer’s stressed out but enabling manager, Irvin, and Kristy Johnson, who seems born to play Ma’s woman, Dussie Mae. Now the audience just has to get there before time runs out.

Rating: ««««

 

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