Taking Flight

Stages' new artistic director, Rob Bundy, didn't take the advice of all his theater-savvy friends to play it safe with content his first season. Instead, Bundy took a risk by opening Stages' season with Elizabeth Egloff's The Swan -- and with it, injected contemporary, daring drama into the sagging theater.

Under the guise of a fairy tale -- a swan becomes a man -- Egloff's play examines the tangles of adult love and how complicated relationships often reveal more about our weak spots than we're comfortable knowing. Set in present time Nebraska, the play takes place in a dingy little house, the kind one finds outside small towns just off Midwestern freeways. That house belongs to our heroine, Dora, played with a neurotic edge by Theo Moffett. The stage's background is Dora's screen door, through which we hear trucks rolling past, and a picture window. Bundy has carefully crafted this production, from the original music box-like score to the special effects Stages' audiences haven't seen in a while, such as rain and snow falling behind Dora's picture window.

Before the swan, Dora's life consisted of trudging back and forth to her nursing job, falling asleep on the couch and arguing with her boyfriend, Kevin. Played by Nelson Heggen, Kevin is a wonderfully self-absorbed milk-truck driver who counters Dora's nonchalance about his marriage proposal by saying, "I'm a nice guy. I'm married, I got a kid." Kevin, though well-intended in his own whiny way, is not the man of Dora's dreams -- not even close. But Dora is beginning to suspect that she can't do better. Her last husband killed himself hours after the nuptials, and her last boyfriend deserted her.

When a swan crashes against Dora's picture window, though, she finds a focus for her life. She rescues the bird and, magically, the swan emerges from his recovery basket (which looks, significantly, like an overgrown bassinet) as a naked man. Though the transformation is obvious to Kevin -- and to the audience -- Dora still insists that Bill, as she names him, is a swan. Moffett is a mixture of tenderness and fear as she tears up lettuce and pizza crusts, feeding him out of an oversized dog-food bowl. As the swan, Robin Burke is earnest and even comical, falling into a stupor after guzzling the quarts of milk Kevin brings over, and attempting to pin Dora with his arms flapping about like giant wings when he finds himself alone with her.

Bundy's staging delicately communicates Dora's slow acceptance of her swan/man. We first see her asleep on her couch, alone, her back to the window. Shortly after the swan proclaims his love for her in garbled but beautiful poetry, Dora wakes up on the opposite side of the room, her foot resting under Bill. The swan's coming has literally turned her life around.

The Swan is occasionally an uncomfortable play, especially when Bill, unable to convince Dora of his deep affection, becomes violent in his attempt to restrain her. In that moment, Egloff's story departs from the fairy tale and becomes a universal sort of struggle. Bill's frustration with Dora is the same frustration that exists in every romantic relationship during those moments when communication breaks down. It's then that Dora recognizes that Bill is the man who will love her in the manner she wants to be loved: wildly, and with utter devotion. That realization frightens her. And as Dora, Moffett masterfully distinguishes between her character's fear of Bill and her fear of her own feelings for him.

What saves this play from becoming a slightly sappy love story is the comedy of Burke waddling around Dora's living room, attempting to speak. Bill's fascination with the '60s tune "The Name Game" drives a droll Kevin nearly mad and contributes to the story's tornado-like ending. The interaction between Moffett and Heggen is a fine example of the kind of repartee that happens between actors who have reached the peak of their craft -- the audience eagerly awaited Heggen's increasingly demented returns.

Fairy tales teach morals through metaphor. Bundy's production of The Swan goes further. Where fairy tales end with magical, pat resolutions, Dora's story ends with a distinctly human choice -- but with no less magic.

On the other side of town, the Ensemble Theatre opened its season with Lonne Elder's 1964 play, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. It, too, is a play about transformation, but in this case, it is the transformation of an entire family.

Set in a corner barbershop, Ceremonies centers on patriarch Mr. Russell Parker (the charming Sterling Vappie), a retired vaudeville dancer who now calls himself a barber but never cuts hair. The Parker family suffers from the death of Russell's wife and the mother of his three children, a woman who worked herself to death to support her husband. As the play opens, Russell's daughter, Adele (Daria Dunn), has bitterly assumed her mother's breadwinner role, supporting her father and two brothers. In the first scene, Adele gives her father an ultimatum: he must get work or be thrown out of the house along with his sons. That demand leads Russell and his male offspring to hatch plans with the neighborhood gangster, Blue Haven, for a home distillery to produce corn whiskey.

Crime doesn't prove easy. One of Blue Haven's female associates seduces Russell to gain information and in the process steals his money. With the well-dressed swagger only criminals have, Desmond Moody makes a tensely quiet and directed Blue Haven, expounding a Black Panther-esque philosophy and prowling around the barbershop to make sure the Parkers are living up to their half of the whiskey deal.

The plunge into underhand activities changes the family dynamic and radically alters its individual members: Adele leaves her responsibilities and her stridence behind to become a party girl who takes up with a low-grade hood; her lazy brother Theo (All D. Freemen) becomes the workhorse, spending 12-hour days making corn whiskey; her father, Russell, regains the momentum he lost during years of sitting around his empty barbershop; and little brother Bobby (Kelvin Hamilton) becomes a topflight burglar.

Directed by James Craven, a guest artist from Minnesota's Penumbra Theater, Ceremonies has a stylish, slick appeal; characters make slow-motion exits with gangsta-like dance moves, and strategic lighting creates moments of recognition and escape for key characters. During one such moment, Theo is washed in a blue spotlight, attempting to ignore the fact that all his labor has earned is despair. Still, unevenness mars this production -- there doesn't seem to be any context for the obviously modern Clarence Thomas dart board that hangs on the barbershop's back wall, or any excuse for Adele's one-note bitchiness in the first act. Often, Craven's production stumbles over the interaction between characters, especially between the male actors and Dunn.

On the surface, Ceremonies is a dark story about the bitterness of growing older, and about Russell's misguided attempts to reclaim his glory days. Beneath the surface, Ceremonies is loaded with the rhetoric of '60s Black Power. The play leaves the audience with something to chew on, and a bewildered sense that the deeper issues Elder addressed -- the encroachment of the ghetto, the disintegration of the family unit -- were not as clear as the playwright intended.

The Swan plays through October 13 at Stages, 3201 Allen Parkway, 52-STAGE. Ceremonies in Dark Old Men plays through October 27 at the Ensemble Theatre, 3414 La Branch at Holman, 520-0055.

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Megan Halverson