SAN DIEGO — Perplexity am what rules in Mac Wellman's "Albanian Softshoe" at the San Diego Repertory Theatre; a play with its own grammar book, star chart and tide table.
The setting turns out to be deep space, where matter and anti-matter can set up strange reflections of what's real. But Wellman sets his first act in an American-style living room where things are only slightly askew. The Danish flatware, for instance, has gone limp, a victim of "metal fatigue." That could happen, couldn't it?
For The Record.
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 21, 1989 San Diego County Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 3 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
"'Albanian Softshoe'- In a Sept. 22 review of the San Diego Repertory Theater's "Albanian Softshoe," the scenic designer was misidentified. The designer was Jill Moon.
Then we're transported to the moons of Saturn, which seem inhabited largely by frowning, freezing Albanians. Our heroes (the wives in the suburban segment--Darla Cash and Jan Leslie Harding) become involved in a quest for a 900-year-old wizard named Pancake. They carry a talismanic cheese, which may not be the "real" cheese. But then Pancake (Damon Bryant) may not be the real pancake.
What is going on here? More than just a lot of "flapdoodle," I think, although the word does come up in the text more than once, along with "hoohah." It's as if Wellman is trying to forestall the verdict of his more literal-minded listeners--who \o7 do\f7 have a right to complain. There's a stretch in the middle of the show where the wordplay gets tedious, for all the fun that Douglas Jacobs and Michael Roth's players are having with it. They don't seem self-indulgent, but their lines do.
Yet I liked "Albanian Softshoe" more than I didn't like it. To begin with, it is not the same old thing. Wellman shows us what he thinks of the same old thing in the suburban sequence--the play's foyer, as it were.
What's being played with here isn't just the code of soap opera ("More coffee?") but the American faith in the pursuit of happiness. Cash, Harding and Tony Simotes have a brilliant triple spiel where they bemoan the fulfillment that they have been cheated out of and are determined to get--three mynah birds saying "me, me, me."
On the moons of Saturn, another mind-set prevails. This is the world of the tribe, where I do what "custom" tells me to do, a world of vendettas and blood guilt, where every legend has a "terrible" ending.
The nonsense here is ritual nonsense, and Wellman can't have as much fun with it as in the American section, because what it represents has so much weight. When his tribe sits down to tell stories, they do so with real gravity, pointless as some of their stories are.
"Sky full of things in X/Sky full of other things in Y." We register the difference, and that alone would make the play more than flapdoodle.
But there's also Wellman's delight in language. "Albanian Softshoe" feels as if it were written on the command of the author's unconscious, with his censor bound and gagged in the next room. As in Shakespeare, the words have a contour that doesn't depend on their meaning, which arrives an instant after they do, like spray from a crashing wave.
Not that Wellman goes in for ringing pentameters. He would rather wrench the language apart, to explore how curiously an English sentence can go and still make a kind of sense.
Bruce McKenzie is particularly felicitous here, as a spiky-haired message-bearer named Wingfoot. (The play is full of messages, riddles, charms and spells.) At first glance it's astonishing that McKenzie and the rest of the company have no trouble with this wayward, complicated text. But at second glance it's perfectly clear why they don't: It's a kick to stand the language on its ear.
"Albanian Softshoe" also profits from a smashing physical production--Michael Roth's wide-screen set, Brenda Berry's intergalactic lighting and a mountain of costumes from Clare Henkel, sometimes witty (the price tag hanging from the lounge suit in the suburban section), but often as harsh as the winter cold. Although off the wall, "Albanian Softshoe" is never totally a softshoe, and that's its salvation.
\o7 Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Closes Oct. 28. Tickets $14-$22. 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego. (619) 235-8025.