Promising Little Beasts Needs Work
Also see Bob's review of Tales of an Urban Burb
The women were both wealthy American heiresses who had the wherewithal and determination (as depicted here, courage was not required as neither felt any fear or trepidation) to shape their lives and flaunt their homosexuality without deferring in any manner to the moralistic disapproval of their time. Natalie Barney maintained a Paris literary salon whose circle included an impressive roster of literary lights. Although Natalie was a poet and memoirist, her own works are regarded as being of little literary merit. Romaine Brooks was an increasingly reclusive painter who largely painted powerful, dark, not quite monochromatic portraits. Some of her paintings were unusually erotic for a painter of her time and gender. Natalie was a voracious sexual creature whose frequent sexual liaisons with other women repeatedly tore at their relationship. Romaine's psychological instability and increasing reclusiveness were difficult for Natalie to bear. Despite this, their fractious, and sometimes fractured, relationship spanned more than fifty years after their meeting (when each was within a year of the age of forty) in 1915.
Set over a period of two days during "the late 1920s" in the hotel suite maintained by Romaine, Little Beasts seems to be depicting her nervous breakdown as she withdraws further and further into an imaginary world of her own creation. The denizens of this world (corporeal to the audience) are Ella, her nearly thirty years deceased, cruelly indifferent mother, and Beatrice, Ella's adolescent self, who is filled with unremitting hatred for Ella and demands fealty from her elder self. At the start, Romaine is angry at Natalie for having gone to Capri for two weeks with a woman "young enough to be your daughter." However, by the end of the first act, Natalie breaks off their relationship because she cannot bear to live with Romaine's delusions, Ella and Beatrice, whom she refers to as Little Beasts.
And this reviewer felt much the same way. Relentlessly dark lighting and a strong sense that we are watching Romaine helplessly descend into lonely madness had left me with expectations of more of the same at intermission. However, the second act is quite a different story. Author Marshall astutely makes clear the psychological need which is causing Romaine to conjure Ella and Beatrice. Faced with the loss of her partner, Romaine confronts these "beasts," concedes that her memory of events and re-creation of her mother may be seriously inaccurate, and comes to the realization that she must accept the fact that she cannot really know her mother nor expect to find in memories of her mother the cure for the psychological damage from her childhood. While this journey is too easy, too quick and too simplistic, it is psychologically valid and emotionally and theatrically satisfying. There is a coda (after Romaine and Natalie play the final scene, Ella and Beatrice return to the stage where they appear to be biding their time until Romaine will again animate them) which mitigates the too easy happy ending and informs us that trouble lies ahead, but it would be better if the script had made clear that the banishment of the delusions was a hopeful phase in an ongoing battle. If the first act were not so dark and Romaine's descent so not depicted so grimly, Romaine's recovery would feel more natural. After all, in confronting psychological difficulties, the cycle of recovery and relapse is to be expected.
Director Jane Mandel has elicited fine performances. Her direction appears to be fully in tune with the author's vision. However, a more critical approach would have served author Mandel better. For example, the final moments of the first act have Romaine dressing into male clothes (would she put on pants over her slip?). Her actions are melodramatically scored and staged with a spotlight falling on a self-portrait of the identically clad Romaine. However, we have been viewing a play about casually open lesbians and have been viewing the painting all evening. Whether or not one has been aware that it is a self portrait, there is nothing of moment or drama here. As a result, this assured piece of staging feels false and silly. The cramped looking stage (with banks of seats on either side) is effectively decorated by Fred Kinney with Romaine Brooks' paintings covering the end walls, ceiling and floor. Given that Luna Stage changes its configuration with each production, it seems odd that it selected one here which obscures Brooks' self-portrait from some of the audience. The lighting by Jill Nagle also seems in keeping with the author's vision. However, after it is dark through most of the play, when, at the end, it turns aggressively bright, one can't help but wonder where the lights came from. Less darkness to represent Romaine's delusional mind, and less brightness for her recovery would be less jarring.
Kathleen Marsh lends much credibility to Romaine with her carefully modulated performance. Nancy Shaheen brings a winning assurance and joie de vivre to her Natalie. Mona Hennessy has chosen to portray the amenable to varying interpretation Ella as scattered and lacking in awareness, and Rebecca Lingafelter as Beatrice effectively conveys the petulance of the child within Romaine. There is one heretofore unmentioned role, that of Romaine's simpatico butler, Henri. Lawrence E. Street fully realizes Henri in a loving performance.
With Little Beasts by resident playwright Jeanne Marshall, Luna Stage has brought to the stage a most promising play by a writer of talent. Given the interesting subject matter, its imaginative presentation, and the skill with which key elements have been realized, further development and subsequent productions are well deserved.
Little Beasts continues performances (Thurs. 7:30 p.m./ Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m. & Sun. 3 p.m.) through May 20, 2007 at Luna Stage, 695 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042. Box Office: 973-744-3309; online www.lunastage.org.
Little Beasts by Jeanne Marshall; directed by Jane Mandel