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Theater | Theater Review

Listen Closely to 'threevoices'

November 08, 2001|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

According to highbrow folklore, when James Joyce once heard a complaint that it would take 10 years to read "Finnegan's Wake," his formidable literary masterpiece, he replied, "So what? It took me 10 years to write it."

The modern-day incarnation of that uncompromising spirit lives on in "threevoices," a diverse trio of monologues staged by Bottom's Dream, a company that shares Joyce's love affair with the creative exploration of language. Fortunately, instead of a decade, this show takes only 100 minutes to get through. The catch is that close attention is required to reap the rewards of its densely challenging writing, but fine performances that illuminate close readings of the texts justify the demands on our concentration.

Exploring themes and literary voices ranging from class warfare to mental illness to sci-fi mythology, James Martin's meticulous staging keeps the pieces fresh by situating them in three different areas inside Culver City's cavernous Ivy Substation.

Opening the evening on an edgy, confrontational note is Ruth Margraff's "The Burlesque Flogging," in which a seething chambermaid (Alice Dodd) probes the resentments and psychosexual fantasies in the rituals of domination and submission that bind her to an unseen mistress.

When an abrupt reversal or power worthy of Jean Gent puts her in charge, she mutates into an equally oppressive monster before contemplating the final leveler of human experience.

Dousing Margraff's heady sociopolitical diatribe with raw emotion, Erik Ehn's "Nevertire" is a harrowing descent into the head of a mentally disturbed bag lady (Jennifer Griffin). A follow-up to Ehn's "Chokecherry" (previously presented by Bottom's Dream), this installment focuses on the birth mother of the seriously disabled child who came under a social worker's care in Part 1. Revealing how and why the mother gave her daughter up for adoption, her fragmented interior stream of consciousness is stylistically reminiscent of the Molly Bloom soliloquy in Joyce's "Ulysses" as it cycles through recurring images and events with rich associations.

Here, however, the effect is heartbreaking in its obsession as she drifts in and out of awareness of her condition.

The final piece, "The Land of Fog and Whistles" by Mac Wellman, transports us to a futuristic planet Pluto, now converted into a vast dumping ground for radioactive waste, where the lone caretaker (William Hanniver) receives a visitation from a ghostly black-clad woman (Bonita Friedericy) condemned to relate stories like an atom-age Scheherazade. In a sprawling, free-associative narrative, she recites a history of the nine worlds and civilizations that preceded their present bleak circumstances.

Wellman's pseudo-allegorical mythmaking could be pretentious if taken too seriously, but Friedericy's whimsical delivery signals that we should settle back and enjoy the linguistic ride rather than parse the depths for meaning--think the tragic Greek heroine Cassandra by way of Gracie Allen.

*

"threevoices," Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Fridays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Dec. 16. $15. (310) 281-9517. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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