KPBS AIRDATE: September 30, 1992
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
So begins Yeats’ dark, sensual poem, “Leda and the Swan,” about the mythical Zeus and his attraction to the mortal Leda, to whom he appeared for a sexual interlude in the guise of a majestical white bird.
The mood captures the essence of “The Swan,” a new play by Elizabeth Egloff currently receiving its Southern California premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse. But this is a modern myth, just like its companion piece, “Marisol,” by José Rivera, which plays in repertory with it as part of the Playhouse’s experimental FutureFest. It’s a very successful experiment. The Playhouse, like the bird in the play, is stretching its wings, exploring its sensibilities and reinventing itself.
“The Swan,” with all its pastoral setting, emotional agitation and beating of wings, is a metaphorical story of a young woman’s search for true, deep and lasting love. On the other end of the spectrum, “Marisol” is a cautionary, apocalyptic tale of survival in the inner city. Both playwrights have something to say. Both wax poetic at times, humorous and gritty at others. The juxtaposition is perfect.
So are the productions. The two plays share a design team that is flawless: Robert Brill has outdone himself yet again, in creating two very distinct settings, both evocative, both mobile, both crashing in on themselves as the world of these characters comes crashing down on them. John Gromada’s music and sound and John Martin’s lighting grab the attention without stealing it, and enhance every moment.
The directors are both women; their styles are different but they represent a fresh new look at theatrical creation, and they both bear watching. Tina Landau’s approach is rough, raw, like the Bronx setting about to envelop young Marisol, the naive Puerto Rican who, in one short day, loses her guardian angel, has Carvel ice cream mashed in her face, almost gets bludgeoned by a golf-club, finds and loses a best friend, becomes a street person, helps a frantic, pregnant man deliver his baby, is stalked by Nazi skinheads, and finally decides to fight back on the side of the angels, against an aging, indifferent God. Whew. What a day! Cordelia Gonzalez is a lovely, likable Marisol, Susan Berman a sharp, tough June and Michael Harris is frighteningly crazy-and-sane as June’s wacko brother, Lenny.
Harris and Berman take center stage in “The Swan,” too, as the unhappy nurse Dora and the swan who turns swain. Both are excellent, though Berman and her milkman-boyfriend Kevin, played by Joseph Urla, are a bit too frenetic. It is Harris’s measured, controlled, beautifully birdlike performance that balances the frenzy and brings an aching heart to the piece. Director Lisa Peterson plays up the poetry and the physical humor to nice effect.
Both plays are billed as comedies, but they’re both deeper and much more thematically serious than that. In tandem, they create a marvelous myth-conception.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.