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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Talking Masks Flawed but Fascinating
By Michelle Pett

Talking Masks
James A. Williams, Louise Smith, and Gwendolyn Schwinke
Every playwright needs a muse. Every actor dreams of a patron. When these desires collide, a world of collaborative possibilities opens up. This is exactly what happened for playwright/director Carlyle Brown and award-winning actress Louise Smith; their long-time friendship inspired the series of short plays that comprise Talking Masks, now in production at Pillsbury House Theatre.

The six one-act plays in Talking Masks explore archetypal roles that women assume during their lives: mother, daughter, lover, wife. Individual stories cover a range of territory: a love affair's demise, a slave couple's improbable escape strategy, an "invisible" white girl's life in the projects, a burlesque queen's advice to a newcomer, a mother's interrogation by police, and a poetic rumination on the masks of womanhood.

Smith, both the inspiration and the through-line for the production, is a remarkably versatile actress; when the storytelling is in her hands alone (as it is in White Girl from the Projects) the production is riveting. Unfortunately, Brown strays from the monologue format in the other five plays, slowly leaching the air out of a piece designed to give Smith's voice its fullest expression. This is especially noticeable in the first play, The Human Voice, in which Smith is ending an illicit affair over the telephone; James A. Williams' presence as her married long-distance lover detracts from our focus on Smith's journey from despair to resolve. Likewise, in The Diva Makes Her Entrance, Smith's world-weary stripper has some interesting things to say about the battle of the sexes, which are almost drowned out by the white noise of Gwendolyn Schwinke's whiney ingénue and Williams' sotto voce Barker.

Talking Masks is not a set or prop-heavy show. Locations are suggested on a small black stage: a rumpled bed for The Human Voice; a checkered table cloth and picnic basket set the stage for the slave-escape piece, Runaway Honeymoon. When the curtains are partially pulled back to reveal the backstage area for Diva, the visual surprise is quite effective. Violinist Molly Sue McDonald's provides introduction/transition music for each piece, performing a musical theme composed by Oliver Lake. This atonal composition, a strange cross between Appalachian hillbilly music and a 1940s film noir theme, sounds like cats mating; it made the seemingly endless transitions between the plays almost unbearable.

The payoff at the end of Talking Masks is not as great as it could be; momentum is built and lost throughout the show by energy-sapping maneuvers like long transitions and underwritten secondary characters. While Brown has done a laudable thing in writing and directing Talking Masks for Smith (a custom-made play is arguably one of the best gifts a playwright can give an actor), deleting the secondary roles would tighten up the show and return the focus to its inspiration. And Louise Smith is definitely an actress worth spending time with in the dark.

Talking Masks May 14 - May 29, 2004. Wednesday - Saturday at 7:30 PM. Tickets $15, Thursday - Saturday; "Pay what you can", Wednesday. Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Ave S, Minneapolis. Call 612-825-0459.


Photo: Pillsbury House Theatre



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Elizabeth Weir



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