Review: The Odyssey's expressionistic 'White Marriage' is so 1970s

Apparently the Odyssey Theatre had a hit 35 years ago with Ron Sossi’s staging of “White Marriage,” a madcap, expressionistic 1975 sex romp by the avant-garde Polish writer Tadeusz Rózewicz.

The Odyssey’s current revival of this play, while directed — again by Sossi — and acted with admirable frisky gusto, nonetheless gives off a whiff of the time capsule. Some plays are for the ages, transcending culture and context, but “White Marriage,” which serves up the preserved sociopolitical preoccupations and heavy symbolism of 1970s Eastern European theater like meats in aspic, may not be among them. 

Set in Poland in about 1890, “White Marriage” (the English title is a clunky translation of the French term mariage blanc, meaning an unconsummated marriage) has a deceptively Chekhovian cast of characters: a genteel extended family and their servants on a country estate.

But Rózewicz invokes his predecessor only to spoof him, replacing thwarted Chekhovian yearning with a zany fever vision in which the trappings of civilization are exposed as vain attempts to suppress mankind's beastly nature.

The family’s two pubescent daughters, Bianca and Pauline (Kate Dalton and Emily Goss, two lovely newcomers both making their L.A. stage debuts), wear lacy white nightdresses as they puzzle over the mysteries of life in twin beds with snowy eiderdowns. (Gary Guidinger’s minimalist set, its encroaching forests painted with a Jugendstil delicacy by Chris Bell, contrasts strikingly with A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s elaborate period costumes.)

The elder, Bianca, who is engaged to the anxious, repressed Benjamin (Austin Rogers), is abjectly terrified by sex, seeing menacing, mushrooming phalluses at every turn (these "special props" are supplied by Leah N. Olbrich). Pauline, in contrast, enjoys her developing body and the gifts it can win from her lascivious grandfather (the delightfully wicked Mark Bramhall).

Their father (John Apicella), who often appears in a papier-mache bull’s mask and is accompanied by a soundtrack of animal growls and roars (by sound designer Martin Carrillo), lustfully pursues the long-suffering if cheerful Cook (Sharon Powers). Their depleted mother (Diana Cignoni) obsesses over housewares, leaving their faintly sinister aunt (Beth Hogan, who played Pauline 35 years ago) to oversee the girls' sexual initiation. 

There are wonderfully weird interactions and playful images, and the cast revels in the tone of comic erotic disgust that permeates the entire evening, most vividly at a picnic at which they eat chicken with salacious greed. But long before this scene, and long after, the playwright's point is obvious: We're all just animals. We get it. For all its length and frantic whimsy, "White Marriage" seems to have nothing further to tell us. 

“White Marriage,” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (some exceptions: call for complete schedule). Ends May 25.  $25-$30.  (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2, or Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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