Review: The dissonant works in 'Woman Parts' derail good intentions

'Sex & God' by Linda McLean offers up melancholy monologues with a few lovely moments

Son of Semele Ensemble has selected two startlingly different short plays for “Woman Parts,” a double bill planned, according to the program, as a corrective to the underrepresentation of women in the theater.

The first offering, “Sex & God,” by the Scottish playwright Linda McLean, weaves together melancholy monologues by four women from different periods of the 20th century: in 1905 (Betsy Moore), 1935 (Melina Bielefelt), 1965 (Sarah Rosenberg) and 1995 (Hilletje Bashew). These women tell their stories in alternating, impressionistic fragments (in dialects coached by Ruth Connell) that evoke four instruments in counterpoint.

Enjoying this experience hinges on the ability to relinquish any expectation of the satisfactions of conventional narrative, and to focus instead on the deeply felt performances and the delicacy of Barbara Kallir’s direction. There are some lovely moments.

Although the characters never address each other directly, they seem perpetually on the brink of mutual recognition, like ghosts haunting one another’s lives, until a childbirth scene brings them together in a wordless unity that suggests the continuity of women’s experience.

But what a grim experience it seems to be! Abuse; regret; drudgery; the fruitless search for love, meaning and salvation; the destructive lure of empty pleasure. The final tableau of a mother beaming at her child may have been intended as a vision of hope, but the child is played by a puppet so creepy that the moment becomes chilling.

This otherwise inexplicable prop may be an attempt to inoculate the audience against the relentless randomness they will encounter after intermission, in the promisingly titled but disappointing “Lamentations of the Pelvis,” by L.A. playwright Sibyl O’Malley.

Becca Wolff’s spirited direction and the cast’s playful performances can’t make up for the flaccidity of this script, which is too busy congratulating itself on its quirky imagery to develop its characters or plot beyond quips.

In a vague, surreal universe prowled by a pack of murderous bridesmaids (Stephanie Berlanga, Sarah Rosenberg and Joelle Mendoza), a fed-up housewife (Laura Carson) encounters a lecherous magician (John Grady), while a dimwitted hermaphrodite (Briana Venskus) attempts to befriend a spinster (Marianne Thompson) who lives in a castle.

The plot, such as it is, hinges on a dead chicken. When everything is thrown into the mix purely for laughs, there is nothing at stake, and so, ironically, nothing is funny.

Increasing the representation of women in the theater is a commendable cause, but the dissonant “Woman Parts” may actually work against its stated goal.

“Woman Parts,” Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. 7 p.m.  Mondays (May 5 and 19 only). $20. (213) 351-3507 or www.sonofsemele.org. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

 

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