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THEATER REVIEWS 'NAKED LONGINGS' AND 'PIES' : Feminine Opposites : Two plays by women are diametrically opposed. One is all subtext; the other is a loosely formed series of character sketches.

February 20, 1992|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Maturity, diversity and struggle.

Those were the overall impressions that came from two works by women playwrights that opened up the coast last week. Flinging down the gauntlet to the traditional boys club of dramaturgy, both plays confidently challenge viewer expectations with highly original material.

And both are new to local audiences. "Naked Longings" by Terre Ouwehand gets its first outing anywhere under the auspices of Actors and Playwrights Theatre, a Santa Barbara company dedicated to developing new plays.

"Pies" is the West Coast premiere of a one-woman piece written and performed by Donna Donnelly, an Equity Artist-in-Residence at the PCPA Theaterfest.

Although the authors bring distinctly feminine sensibilities to these shows, both take as axiomatic that there is an established place for women playwrights and move on to the broader context of survival in the modern world.

Yet they're about as far apart in their approaches as you could imagine, with complementary strengths and weaknesses. Taken as a pair, they perfectly illustrate the fundamental dramatist's dilemma--balancing the particulars of individual stories against universal themes.

"Naked Longings," the more ambitious though at times overreaching of the two, aspires almost exclusively to universal concerns. More a psychological exploration than a traditionally structured narrative, it's nothing less than the search for an integrated self dramatized as a mythic quest.

Subtitled "a portrait of the artist as a young archetype," the work is a series of encounters between an unnamed protagonist (Robert Demetriou, referenced in the program simply as the Player) and similarly anonymous characters who represent his fundamental relationships--with parents, lovers and the various controlling influences he confronts in his struggle for identity.

Loss and pain are the dominant chords throughout these episodes, from early abandonment by father in childhood to adult longing for union with a married woman (Cali Rae Turner) who won't leave her husband and take up with him. Here, as in other sex role reversals, Ouwehand attempts to bridge the gender gap by inviting us to consider the anguish of blocked fulfillment from an inverted perspective.

Flitting about him with alternating taunts and encouragements are a pair of mockingly seductive Fates (Leslie Gangl-Howe and Maria Dela Vega). "The need to know why is a device to avoid reality," they say in response to his demand for rational connections between events. Where the Player flounders helplessly in shifting emotional tides, these Fates have the feminine edge--greater insight and facility with emotions. They give him clues to his quandary, but like all mythic heroes, he must piece together the riddle of life for himself.

Ultimately, the Player is left to confront his own fragmented self and, armed with sword, shield and a baseball catcher's chest protector, he engages in a mock-heroic battle against the dead, mechanical vestiges of his own socialization.

Ouwehand's strongest skills are literary: There's a sharp urgency to her dialogue, a passionate search for the "moment of beauty against the entropy of worlds," rendered even more powerful by Fiona Hunter's taut direction. In perfect unison, the Fates chirp their cryptic, often poetic (and sometimes pretentious) chorus.

Their motto is, "Nothing is ever said directly."

That's probably truer for this play than it needs to be; all too often, the piece becomes mired in its own symbolism and obliquely linked chronology. Deciphering the identities and relationships between the various characters that pop in and out becomes a full-time job and presents needless obstacles for an audience already immersed in heady waters.

Where Ouwehand's play works its way out from the archetypal catacombs of experience, "Pies" takes the opposite tack: It offers an impeccable depiction of surface realism that suggests deeper currents in the lives of six women, all portrayed by the playwright.

In a work that grew out of Donnelly's compulsive people-watching, each character has a distinct identity, unlike the generic icons in Ouwehand's drama. For an uninterrupted 1 1/2 hours, Donnelly transforms herself into the middle-aged proprietress of a Hollywood pie shop, her Valley Girl employee and four of their customers.

The glistening promises of Tinseltown hold sway over all their dreams.

There's Magee, a ruthless studio executive spouting platitudes from Werner Erhardt and Donald Trump. Ruthie is an 80-year-old milliner fondly reminiscing about making hats for Clark Gable. The transplanted New Yorker, Camilla--a former hostess from the Peppermint Lounge who still dresses in red and white--is so steeped in urban paranoia that she can't put her address and phone number on job applications.

Each person is a survivor, passing personal tests in life just as heroically as the wounded child-turned-warrior in "Naked Longings."

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