Published in Gay and Lesbian Times February 27, 2003
Splendor is in the eye of the beholder. As she tells us in her director’s notes, Karen Carpenter first read it just after 9/11 and couldn’t get it out of her mind. Even when you’re sitting there watching it, it’s often hard to keep the play in mind (without losing track).
There are many disturbing elements of “Splendour,” only some of which are intentional. In this new work by British playwright Abi Morgan, currently having its American premiere at the Globe Theatres, a great deal is bubbling under the surface. We meet four women, trapped in a palace, in a distant country, under governmental control — waiting for the dictator to arrive for a photographic portrait. We learn a bit about these women, in jagged puzzle pieces — snippets of dialogue and subtext, inner monologue and superficial pleasantries. In staccato, non-linear rhythm, scenes are replayed, a new layer is revealed, a vase is magically broken and re-assembled for the next go-round. The audience has to work to keep up, to put the pieces together, to read between the lines. We struggle to understand the relationships and the motivations. The play challenges the imagination, the attention and ultimately, the patience.
The underlying disturbance goes beyond the dictatorship of this unnamed country, beyond the implications of each woman’s actions, beyond the anxious pacing of these four caged animals, penned in place while a snow-storm and a civil war rage outside. At the end, we come to the distressing realization that we have been coaxed down a crooked, brambled path that leads… nowhere. We have sat for 100 minutes, we have endured the playwright’s initially intriguing experimentation with form — at the expense of content. We get a cursory glimpse at what drives these four survivors. But we don’t learn enough to fully understand their inner workings — or to care what makes them tick. We may even come to the point of resentment; all this effort and no payoff. The setup is fascinating. But less is revealed than is left unexplained. And the so-called revelations at the end fall flat, buried in the morass of mystery and mental acrobatics.
Though these women have names, they are identified as prototypes: the wife, the interpreter, the photographer, the informer. Many contrapuntal opportunities are there — but this fugue ends in an unresolved chord. We get political titillation, but so consummation. The ramifications remain frustratingly unexplored. Nonetheless, the performances are compelling, especially Gordana Roshovich as the dictator’s Imelda-like wife, and as her beaten-down, colorless friend, AKA the informer, Monique Fowler rises to an impressive emotional crescendo (the only one of the evening). As characters, the Photographer and Interpreter are less clearly defined, though well played by Joanna Glushak and Chelsey Rives. The set (Tony Fanning) is lovely, the costumes (Charlotte Devaux) aptly class-defining, the lighting (Aaron M. Copp) and sound (Paul Peterson) evocative. But the direction (Karen Carpenter) is less varied than one might hope, played at just one note, one unvarying level. Morgan clearly has a voice and a vision. But her play is an exercise in frustration, and this production offers the splendor of release only when it ends.
“Splendour” runs through March 16 on the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage in Balboa Park; 619-239-2255.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.