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STAGE REVIEWS : Bloom’s Gracious Evening With the Bard’s Women

Times Theater Critic

Claire Bloom read Shakespeare Thursday night at Ambassador Auditorium, beautifully but not intimately.

The evening was called “Then Let Men Know: A Portrait of Shakespeare’s Women.” Dressed in a simple black grown, Bloom presented excerpts from six plays, each focusing on a woman whom Bloom seemed to admire--Viola in “Twelfth Night” for her ability to laugh at herself, Katharine of Aragon in “Henry VIII” for her refusal to be broken, Volumnia in “Coriolanus” for the magnificence of her scorn, Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” for the magnificence of her resolve.

As one expects from English actors, the words came first--their shape, their music, the silences between them. But without losing herself in a scene, Bloom did more than read it. She acted it: the men’s parts too. And everything she touched was well observed. Her women were no less women for being ladies.

Juliet seemed to have earned Bloom’s special respect, for conquering her fears in the tomb in such a soldierly fashion. What men were to “know,” one gathered from this recital, was what strong stuff women were made of.

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To an American listener, the evening had a distance about it. Bloom gave us some background notes, but there was no clue as to why she preferred these particular scenes over others--why “Twelfth Night” appealed to her more than “As You You Like It,” for instance, which also has fun with the idea of a girl masquerading as a boy.

You didn’t want chitchat. In an age of fake intimacy, the distance was even refreshing: that of an instrumentalist who wants to be judged solely on her performance.

But an actress isn’t merely an instrumentalist. In an assignment of this sort, she has something in common with a lecturer. A good one always takes personal notice of the audience. We would have enjoyed meeting Claire Bloom Thursday night, as well as Juliet and Viola.

Samm-Art Williams’ “Woman From the Town” at the Inner City Cultural Center starts from the same place as Friedrich Duerrenmatt’s “The Visit”: A wealthy woman returns to the little town that scorned her.

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But while the heroine of “The Visit” is out for revenge, Williams’ heroine may be disposed toward mercy. Actually, she ought to thank the town. If it hadn’t cast her out, she never would have made big bucks up north.

Still, she and her fatherless baby went through hell. So she will let the townspeople squirm for awhile as they start to realize who is buying up all the real estate.

A promising beginning. But “Woman From the Town” doesn’t come together at ICCC. We’re not sure at the end whether we’ve seen the story of a clever woman carrying through a well-laid scheme to save a town and yet put its inhabitants in their place, or the story of a woman who had to change her agenda when she fell in a love with a place that she thought she hated.

What’s needed is not more big speeches about the need to be true to “the land.” Maybe we need more little speeches, evincing real small-town behavior. Williams has a talent for these, when he exercises it--for example, the moment where the heroine’s nephew agrees with her that he’s all grown up now: “I’ve been in the Marines and everything.” That’s how people talk at home. But when the lines get programmatic, the play goes dead.

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There’s something stiff about the production too. In a play about relationships, director Adeleane Hunter tends to let each actor stay in her own frame, doing her own number--Donnice Wilson as the sophisticated heroine, Robyn Hastings as her self-assured daughter, Roxie Roker as her resentful sister, etc. Ensemble acting needs more overlap, especially in a family play. The easiest performance, if not the showiest one, comes from Eugene Lee as the nephew, one of those country boys who smile and smile, and end up owning the farm.

Plays at 1303 S. New Hampshire Ave., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Closes Oct. 22. Tickets $20 ; (213) 387-1161.

‘WOMAN FROM THE TOWN’

Samm-Art Williams’ play, at the Inner City Cultural Center. Director Adeleane Hunter. Set design Qulture Jarrett. Costume design Patricia Smith. Stage manager Diana Besiana. Production stage manager Ed De Shae. With Roxie Roker, Donnice Wilson, Robyn Hastings, Eugene Lee, Lou Hancock and Loretta Devine.

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