Like the joke novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or its cash-in sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, most of the power in Edward Albee's drama Seascape comes from the friction between high literature and B-grade fantasy. Here, a set of garrulous, Proust-reading married couples lag about the beach, hash over their waning libidos and, not soon enough, stare down two man-sized lizards that have just crawled up from the sea. It's Albee and Sea Monsters.
This professional staging of Seascape by Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre is the play's first in Kansas City, and it has much to recommend. The lizards, played by Sam Wright and Katie Ligon, have done their reptilian homework. They skitter about in hectic bursts but then pause, still and tense, eyes wide, tongues occasionally licking out. The costumes — designed by Jan Chapman — are more fantastic than frightening, a garish sea-green dotted to suggest scales. But there's a real-world weight to them. The male whips his great tail about to show his power, the tail kicking up sand as it swings; for once, a Kansas City theater audience doesn't have to pretend that a menace is more frightening than it really is. We understand why the humans flinch. (Kudos to that sand, incidentally — Karen Paisley's horizonwide beach set is dreamy and inviting.)
The play is most interesting when the genres are chafing. The marital travails of the first 40 minutes are well-observed but familiar, and Marilyn Lynch and Paul Orwick, for all their amusing bickery, never convince me that they're retirees of an Albeean persuasion. Perhaps it's because they're made to look like shlubs in thrift-store outfits, entirely at odds with summering East Coast intellectuals: Orwick wears scuffed loafers to a seaside picnic, and his pants have been hemmed up like a pauper's. Poor Lynch, meanwhile, has to hitch up her ill-fitting jeans every couple of minutes, which is the last distraction any actor — or audience — should suffer.
While they're both strong in their monologues, Lynch and Orwick (as directed by Paisley) at times dash through their arguments with too little effectiveness. An important bit about Orwick's character suspecting that they might be dead, and that this seascape might be some afterlife, is especially unclear: Is he joking? Does she care?
Eventually, the lizards storm the beach, and a passable evening of theater becomes something more. Following a tense, comic-act break, we get a cracked sci-fi standoff that shifts — once the lizards begin to talk, revealing relationship troubles of their own — into a first-contact story, then an absurd couples' drama, a comedy of language and at last a fable of evolution in both the grand sense and in the course of our own lives. Albee anchors each of these flights in his familiar themes: couples' struggles to communicate, the joys and tolls of love across a lifetime.
William Mastrosimone's Extremities, in a suitably bracing production from Minds Eye Theatre, starts with a rape and achieves the not-insignificant distinction of growing darker from there. After getting the better of the rapist, Marjorie (Emily Green) chains him up in her fireplace and vows, for her own safety, to starve him to death. From there on, it's all tragic inevitability: The victim's roommates come home, the rapist works them against each other, and Marjorie worries that she's as much an animal as he is. Indulging in torture and beatings, ginning up some filler suspense sequences, it's certainly compelling in its lurid, kinda-feminist way. By final curtain, I felt that I'd been rubbed raw.
Green and Victor Hentzen invest the long, brutal rape scene with remarkable energy — there's none of the timidity common to stage violence. Going at it Saturday night, they threw each other into an easy chair with such force that its leg cracked off. Director Sara Crow, a trouper, sawed the other chair legs at intermission to match it.
Green and Hentzen maintain their fury throughout the play. Green plays jail keeper and gravedigger with a terrible righteousness. She swings a hammer at Hentzen or douses him with gasoline but then glides across the realistic living-room set in a sort of vengeful catatonia. Blindfolded and beaten, Hentzen wheedles well, pricks at our sympathies and generally exemplifies the old adage about bringing the devil into your house. (Or at least imprisoning him there.)
The roles of Marjorie's roommates are underwritten, and one of them tends toward scene-killing stiffness. Strangely, considering the power of the opening, a burst of violence near the end is flat and sloppy. Still, the leads offer strong, persuasive performances that took me some time to shake off. The same goes for Mastrosimone's moral issues. Several times, just after Marjorie had captured her rapist, I laughed appreciatively at her bravado, just as audiences have been programmed to do. Then reality hit: For all his sins, he's still human and he's still being tortured.
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