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Daisy in the Dreamtime

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Daisy Bates was never an official anthropologist, but was renowned for her study of the Australian aborigines in the first half of the twentieth century. Now her story is being told in what is a mostly beautiful, acutely theatrical way in Abingdon Theatre Company's newest production, Lynne Kaufman's Daisy in the Dreamtime.

The Dreamtime of the title is the aboriginal concept of life and death that plays an integral role in the play. The past and future, life and death, are intertwined; all that has ever lived continues to live in every element of the remote Australian outback. Director Kim T. Sharp has chosen to represent this in the play through the use of two dancers (Afra Hines and Carey Macaleer, billed in the program as Spirits) who weave in and out of the action, assist with continuity, and embrace nearly everything with their presence. (The choreography is credited to Karen Azenberg.)

But their work, like Sharp's, goes much deeper. When, after many years among the aborigines (or, as she refers to them, "my people"), Daisy (Molly Powell) finds their way of life being threatened by missionaries and the encroaching railroad, the dancers thrillingly demonstrate this with a black banner (emblazoned with a white snake) that magically grows to encompass the entire stage. Or when Daisy travels to Adelaide to lecture on behalf of them when their way of life is slowly absorbed into the rest of the world, the dancers become entangled in the walls used to represent the "civilized" world, their failed attempts at escape all too powerfully demonstrating the aboriginal spirit dying with them.

Daisy in the Dreamtime is full of these touches, with Sharp's fine work making James F. Wolk's scenic design, David Castaneda's lights, and Susan Scherer's costumes seem epic on the stage. Yet, all of this seems completely natural to Kaufman's script, simple, traditional ways at presenting the big ideas Kaufman sets forth. Kaufman is able to achieve a great deal with only a few words, and makes some of the play's plot twists, perhaps all too easily clichéd and predictable, seem wholly new. Her talent for deploying dramatic irony with a grin is an excellent addition to the second act.

That act is almost perfect, fast-paced and provocative. The first act is a bit more problematic, with too much exposition (perhaps unavoidable) and too many flashbacks to Daisy's earlier life that don't shed as much light on her current situation as Kaufman seems to think. But once the story it gets going, it moves like gangbusters, barreling right through the intermission to the moving final scene.

Powell is given a tremendous amount to do as Daisy, and handles it with an affable grace and dignity, a steady voice and an intriguing presence (as she's almost never off-stage, this is a good thing). Jerome Preston Bates finds the pathos and the humor in King Billy, representative of the aboriginal peoples of which Daisy is an honorary member, Larry Swansen finds some of the play's best comedy in the stuff British scholar interested in Daisy's research, and Matthew Goff plays the didgeridoo live, and with a tremendous passion and even dramatic force.

Perhaps the most interesting character is Jodie Lynn McClintock's Annie Lock, the missionary who becomes Daisy's ideological combatant. Truly yin and yang, the two are at odds for a great deal of the play, until late in the second act, when a striking scene demands the audience questions its own perceptions of the characters, shining light on the similarities between Annie and Daisy that go deeper than had previously been suggested.

The moment is taut and halting, but it's far from out of place. Rather, it's just another example of the intelligence and depth Kaufman displays, pointing out Daisy Bates's unfortunate flaws even while celebrating her for her work. Both Kaufman and Sharp should likewise be celebrated for theirs, a vital story colorfully and creatively told.

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Abingdon Theatre Company
Daisy in the Dreamtime
Through March 30
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes with one intermission
Abingdon Theatre Company, 312 West 36th Street
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 206-1515