Nathalie Barney was a good-looking American heiress who set out for Gay Paree at the end of the 19th century and managed the considerable feat of making herself the talk of that glamorous town. She hosted one of the most celebrated salons. She also had a lifelong sapphic romance with another expatriate, the painter Romain Brooks.
Barney and Brooks are a fascinating pair from a time and place that positively reeks of fascination. And it's too bad Mesa Productions (which brought us last year's excellent Small Craft Warning) was so reticent about them in connection with Angel & Dragon. For as Anna Furbish (the fictionalized Barney of the play) notes, scandal is the most effective form of merchandizing.
The first thing that strikes you about Angel & Dragon is a visual effort greater than one usually associates with Cowpoke's. David Raphel has effectively summoned up the feeling of an artist's studio. The grand sky-lit window gives upon an enormous, gild-framed painting of Manhattan. When the play shifts location, the painting shifts as well. It's an ingenious touch.
We begin in New York, 1945. An aging Maggie Irving is painting a nude and since the actress is, in fact, nude, we are plunged immediately into an ambiguous, out-of-normal-life realm. This sort of workaday exhibitionism (the model at one point reads a movie magazine) sends complex mixed signals: poignancy, vulnerability, eroticism, naturalness, brazenness, boredom and absurdity. A spectral entrance by Maggie's deceased lover, Anna Forbish, dressed to the nines in gay '90s splendor, induces a flashback to the courtship between the two women 55 years earlier in Paris.
Now, we see a timid, young Maggie. Once again, she is painting from a model, but this time, she is interrupted by the flesh-and-blood Anna, who sweeps into the room, tossing off decadent witticisms like a female Oscar Wilde. She is all for pleasure and excess and cringes from "the stench of labor." She was briefly married ("we flirted, fornicated, fought and fled"), but she seems to prefer women over men -- though establishing her sexual orientation would require an elaborate statistical analysis. She is, in any case, wildly attracted to the candid ingenue with the palette, to whom she exclaims, "You're a volcano, a cavern of warm red fire and I want to swim in you." Or again, after introducing Maggie to that satanic device, rouge: "You're like the figurehead of a pirate galley and I am the Pirate Captain, steering you into new waters."
Anna is as good as her word. In a series of five scenes, spread out over 35 years, we watch their relationship unfold. It's the proverbial moveable feast, attended by Countess this and Baron that, by "Marcella, who runs around her chateau naked and pays the locals to beat her with rhododendrons." A whirlwind of drink, drugs, parties and orgies. But Anna has a roving eye and disappears for months at a time with her latest infatuation. One morning, Maggie wakes up in a stranger's apartment, sick and ashamed. She has wandered too far from her work ethic and from her art.
There's no use trying to explain it to Anna: "You put everything I say under your verbal hammer and break it to pieces."
As you can see, I've dropped in many quotes from the play -- for the script, like one of its protagonists, has a literary flair. This is often one of its pleasures. Though, at times, there's more than a bit of gilding on the lily.
Under Cheryl Denson's direction, Maggie Eldred (Anna) and Stacey Arton (Maggie) create clear, believable characters who are irresistibly drawn to each other, but cannot harmonize their inherently opposed natures. The scenes that depict this struggle in its full flower are engrossing. The climactic pedagogical suicide is a remarkable, if implausible, conceit and done with great poise. Veronica Russell is charming as "the model" in all her many guises (or lack thereof). And speaking of guises, hats off to Cecile Covert for the period costumes.
And speaking of hats off: JPAS recently pulled out all the stops for The Wizard of Oz with various and sundry characters sailing though the air, pyrotechnics and a cast of what seemed like thousands of costumed kids (Winkies, Monkeys, Jitterbugs, Lollipop Guilders, Poppies, Ribbon Dancers, Flower Girls, Munchkins and others). The script was an adaptation of the movie and made just about every stop along the Yellow Brick Road. Rachel de Jonge, a pert and engaging Dorothy, was joined by an adroit, light-footed threesome: Scott Sauber (The Scarecrow), Brian Bell (The Tin Woodsman) and Marc Belloni (a very Bert Lahrish Cowardly Lion). Kris Shaw directed this fabulous feast of mellifluous family fun.
- John Barrois
- Three's a crowd: Anna Furbish (Maggie Eldred), Maggie Irving (Stacey Arton) and a model (Veronica Russell) explore life, love and one another in Mesa Productions' presentation of Angel & Dragon.