To say that the Unicorn Theatre's new Jerome stage is intimate is not just a polite way of calling it small. This years-in-the-making expansion of the venerable Unicorn is compact but not crowded, not so much tight as it is fitted: It's small in that perfect way, like your favorite pants from high school. Here, an actress's whisper carries across the seven rows of audience, and a shout shakes the room. Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire, the Jerome's vital inaugural show, is ideally suited to its proportions. One door south, on the familiar Unicorn stage, the dense urban jigsaw that set designer Gary Mosby has conceived would have to spread across a much wider space, probably losing the well-managed chaos that is essential to the play. And the actresses — a remarkable trio who spend the entire show in the most personal of monologues — would have to address three sections of seating instead of just one.
The Jerome stage is exactly three times more intimate than the big Unicorn. Just in time, too, because 9 Parts of Desire warrants no less. A fractured portrait of fractured lives, the show confronts us with people who exist, for most Americans, one step beyond the forgotten.
Over a quick 90 minutes, we meet a host of Iraqi women: a doctor and a painter, residents and exiles, secular urbanites and devoted believers wrapped in full hijab. Some support the war, and some spit that Bush is a criminal and the children make jewelry from bullets. Each shares compelling details. Many horrify, of course — stories of babies born with genetic disorders, a devastating report of the hell unleashed by a bunker-buster bomb in the first Gulf War. Equally affecting, though, are the flashes of character, the tough-minded, idiosyncratic selves that flourish amid such turmoil. A young girl, smartly underplayed by Cheryl Weaver, has learned to time the descent of bombs. She explains in uncertain English how she counts off the seconds between overhead hiss and nearby impact. Layal, an artist sharply sketched by Jennifer Aguilar, tells us with characteristic honesty, "I'm a good artist. I'm an OK mother. But I'm a terrible wife." She has survived by learning, in her words, "to whore" both her body and her art. One of her portraits of Saddam was hung in the national gallery. Now, after the fall of the Baathists, she's resisting learning again.
Under the direction of Cynthia Levin, each monologue builds naturally, at the pace of conversation, toward endings both surprising and inevitable. (Only a poetic opening bears any stamp of artifice.) The third actress, Andi Meyer, is also strong, and Jeffrey Cady's lighting achieves a subtlety rare at any theater. As the stage dims or brightens during a monologue, the shifts are almost imperceptible, seemingly keyed to our emotions.
In this country, it is a comfort to toast one another for strength in the face of trauma. The rarity of terror in American life leaves us blessedly unpracticed at survival. Tellingly, the only basket case in Raffo's bunch is almost wholly Americanized, watching the conflict on cable from a New York apartment. Late in the show, in a moment as powerful as any this new stage will see, this American woman receives a panicked call from Baghdad. They've seen the towers fall, and they're desperate with worry.
They know we aren't ready for this world, yet.
The seats of the Jerome aren't wide, and they're built on a sharp incline that invites you to lean in and peer down. That's —perfectly appropriate for a theater that demands we look closer rather than just sit back and enjoy. At the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, the seats are likewise revealing. The old church pews that the MET has hauled from space to space are evidence that these pros are still somewhat catch-as-catch-can, yet they also suggest a certain missionary zeal. Munch cookies with the staff and crowd during intermission, and it's hard to miss that the MET is interested in building community.
It's also devoted to high-quality stagings of serious plays, such as Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune. Director Karen Paisley gets the customary good work out of Jan Chapman and James Wright, who play the title couple, a waitress and a short-order cook who, after falling into bed together, pass an evening working out whether they might fit into each other's lives.
The play's edge has dulled in the 20 years since its debut. Sex before intimacy is old news, and post-Clinton, the big fight hinging on Johnny's request for a blow job is as quaint as the idea of balanced federal budget.
But the struggle to get past a lover's defenses remains crucial. As in life, these lovers work themselves again and again into the same problem. Frankie (Chapman) warms toward Johnny (Wright), until Johnny says something like "You have a beautiful pussy" or — worse — "I love you." Then Frankie freezes again, waiting for Johnny to warm her. The result is engaging, humane and ultimately moving, despite being repetitious and not always believable. Early on, Frankie complains that Johnny stares at her too intently when he dishes out his compliments, but in these moments, Wright has played Johnny as one of his musical-comedy goofballs. He soon intensifies, reconciling some impossible character traits. Chapman, meanwhile, is movingly uncertain throughout, and the space between them swells and shrinks with Frankie's level of comfort. As she occasionally grows fierce and hints that Johnny should leave, it's hard to understand why she doesn't just throw him the hell out. Still, we're glad she doesn't.
Community-building is also the key to Quindaro, a new play trumpeting one of the greatest stories in Free State history: the rise and fall of the riverside town whose residents helped spirit runaway slaves from their Show-Me state pursuers. Unfortunately, Kathleen McGhee-Anderson's script, commissioned by UMKC's theater department, hashes much of the history and the drama, trucking in stiff, declamatory scenes that demonstrate an interest in the whats and the wherefores but too little in the people themselves. By the end, even the wherefores are lost.
Some cast members dig deep enough to compensate. Toccarra Cash and T.J. Chasteen develop their underwritten slaves into full selves for whom we would ache if their stories were given focus. As a white teacher risking her life for ideals, Angela Cristantello is an eccentric pleasure, uncorking her daft laughter even in scenes that give her lines better suited to a wall plaque than to any dramatic character.
The historical realism is sometimes suspended for welcome flights into the mythopoetic. Through shrewd lighting and staging, director Ricardo Khan plunges us into a well where a slave is hiding. Earlier, the town's rise from the dirt is presented as a vibrant, multicultural dance number. Music throughout the show, from Kansas City gospel singers, is rich and stirring, and Bill Cobbs, star of TV and films, is a warm, garrulous narrator. But he's forced to talk us through an epic metaphor comparing freedom with itching — rashes, scratches and all. No wonder that on opening night, he sometimes lost the words.
What we have here, then, is a show so steeped in talent and local importance that I fervently wished it might cohere. Then, as the climax neared, the town was suddenly a smoking ruin and Quindaro had never bothered to show us exactly how or why. Quindaro the town's failure might be vague to audiences, but sadly, Quindaro the play's is all right there on the surface.