Generic gets freaky in Signs of Life

Hatchet rating: 3.5 hatchets

If P. T. Barnum, a psychotic gynochologist, Henry James, his lesbian, masochistic sister Alice, her lover/nurse, an abusive mental hospital warden and a cast of freaks all walked into a bar, Signs of Life, The Generic Theater Company’s newest production, would be the punch-line.

The play, written by Joan Schenkar, centers on events from Henry James and Dr. Sloper’s recent past, which they discuss over tea. Dr. Sloper is a doctor who specializes in removing women’s genitalia in order to cure them. The character is based loosely on J. Marion Simms, a famous American gynecologist.

Signs of Life, features a series of flashbacks starting with the story of the Elephant Girl, Jane Merritt. Jane’s hunched-over appearance and skin deformities land her in a mental hospital with other freaks and a terrifying warden who torment her constantly. She is treated by Sloper, who finds her to be a precious specimen for his demented research. Then she is delivered into the hands of P.T. Barnum, who puts her on parade in a freak show. Sloper recovers her from Barnum so that he can experiment on her more.

Barnum also treats James’ sister Alice, the attention-starved hypochondriac who reads Emily Dickenson and has a collection of small, sharp household objects. She arrives at the mental hospital with her brother and her lesbian lover and nurse, Katherine Loring. Dr. Sloper tells her she is dying of breast cancer. After faking medical emergencies for almost 20 years, Alice hardly takes the news that she is going to die seriously.

Needless to say, this was a complicated play for Generic to tackle. The characters all are written according to the Brechtian alienation effect, in which characters are not individuals but the products of historical and social circumstances. This approach requires some difficult acting because characters, while based on historical characters, are not meant to be real people.

In Signs of Life, this type of characterization makes the bad characters evil and the good characters helpless. Dr. Sloper, by far the most depraved character, is played by junior Andrew Adler. Tea time with James shows the despicable side of Sloper, but Adler really lights up his role in the scenes that feature him operating on the women.

Pieter vanNoordennenAlice James is the other dark character in the play, and Elizabeth Mazer sparkles in the role. Mazer is able to incorporate all of the secret facets of Alice’s personality, from suicidal tendencies to lesbianism to exhibitionism, and still manage to instill sympathy in the audience. She brings much of the pain in her life upon herself, but the audience still does not want to see her harmed.

P. T. Barnum, the legendary circus producer, rounds out the trio of villains. Jared Hill Mercier gives an absolutely brilliant performance as the hard-drinking and profit-orientated Barnum. His aloof and insensitive attitude when talking about human life and emotions spark a keen dislike for his character.

The protagonists in the play, ironically, have a much harder time inspiring sympathy. Freshman Abby Jacobson plays The Elephant Woman Jane Merritt, probably the most pure-of-heart character. Jane does not have a mental problem, and is therefore not as sympathetic. Jacobson’s performance is melodramatic, but so is her character. She does adequately in an extremely difficult role.

Leigh-Erin Balmer, who plays Katerine Loring, is alluring at times and ordinary at others. The audience only once hears about Loring’s life outside the context of the James’ life, but the character has a lot of depth given her unique social circumstances. The only major flaw in Balmer’s performance is that in most of her scenes she has her back to the audience. It makes it difficult to witness through facial expressions how her character reacts as her life and relationship crumble before her.

By far the most interesting characters in the play are those that say the least. Francoise Galleto, Tom McKewn, Jordana Schwartz, Dougie Miller and Barabara Miller are frightening and extremely entertaining. Miller even stares one audience member in the face without blinking for about 15 minutes.

Under the guidance of director Annie Kramlinger and stage manager Lisa Suben, this play seems to takes Generic in a more artistic direction than it has gone in the past. The stage design is interesting, as the tea-time talks occur above where the rest of the action is. The set also never changes.

Also unique is the staging of a bizarre hallucination sequence that Jane experiences while she is watched by the eyes of Barnum’s circus-goers. The dream-like music and the movement of the actors are interesting, though not critically important to the play nor particularly insightful. The play begins before the audience is let into the theater.

Maggie Murray was on triple duty as Jane’s mother and Dr. Sloper’s nurse, which was cause for some confusion as Murray makes her first appearance as the nurse following Jane’s demise.

The costumes, created by Elspeth Weingarten, put the audience right in the middle of the 19th century.

This play has a lot of potential for success. If the actors are able to nail their lines without tripping and continue crisp timing, Signs of Life will leave an impression on the audience that not even a Sloper scalpel could remove.

Signs Of Life plays at Lisner Downstage on Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m, and Sunday at 4 p.m.. Tickets are $3 for students and $5 for general admission.

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