Apple Tree Theatre

Poor Dora. It's not enough that she's a nurse working a high-stress job caring for acutely disabled men in a rural hospital "somewhere in Nebraska." Not enough that three husbands or boyfriends have all deserted her--via divorce, suicide, or just plain skedaddling. It's not even enough that Kevin, her current paramour, is possessive, demanding, and married to another woman--though he insists he'll divorce his wife and marry Dora if she'll have him, a course of action she refuses to consider. No, what should crash into her picture window one night but this big, bodacious swan. Being a good nurse, Dora takes the stunned creature into her house--and the next day, damned if he hasn't changed into a big, bodacious young man. There's just one catch--he still thinks he's a swan.

The publicity for Elizabeth Egloff's The Swan claims it's reminiscent of the myth of Leda and the swan. But Egloff, apparently unable to decide whether to treat this ancient Greek gossip as domestic comedy or romantic tragedy, has written in both forms, simply shoving two very different acts together in one play. Creatures forged from two or more animals--centaurs, griffins--are not uncommon in Greek myths, but in this case the result is not a pleasant sight.

Initially the rehabilitation of the swan-man, whom Dora names Bill, resembles the familiar scenario of a new baby in the household: Kevin grows jealous of Dora's devotion to the helpless stranger and upset about their diminished privacy. Dora coos maternally over Bill's first words, his first trousers (the details of his toilet training are left to our imagination), and his acquisition of helpful housekeeping skills. On the other hand, Egloff also has Bill killing rabbits, bringing dead mice home, and burying meat in the sofa cushions--behavior characteristic of neither swans nor children.

Following intermission, the play's tone grows darker and its narrative muddier, with long rhapsodies of psycho-mystical poetry and dream sequences involving tango dancing. Kevin becomes sinister and mean-spirited--when he offers to take Bill hunting sometime, we laugh nervously, hoping he doesn't really mean what we think he means. And Dora ends up scrabbling around on the floor clad in a billowing white wedding dress, not unlike a swan's plumage, and weeping with terror at the prospect of flying the coop with her avian inamorato, whose silhouette appears at the windows like that of the psychopathic murderer in cheap suspense movies. By this time, however, all we can wonder is what happened to the affectionate little fantasy we were watching an hour or so earlier.

When confronted with a mishmash like this, the director usually tries to find a through line and shape the production to adhere to that. In this case, Mark E. Lococo could have played down the comic elements of the first act, or the serious elements of the second, to better integrate the two halves. He seems to have opted for the latter: the first act is a masterpiece of humorous invention and timing. But though his seasoned cast are flexible enough to go in whatever direction they're pointed, by act two they're reduced to simply walking through the pseudo-classical claptrap imposed on them by the script. Kate Buddeke acts up a small tempest to be sure, playing Dora with an engaging earthiness in act one and convincing, if unmotivated, vulnerability in act two. James W. Sudik as Kevin dances between nerdiness and villainy with poker-faced conviction. And Kevin Gudahl in the thankless role of Bill is called upon to recite euphuistic language with no trace of inflection or vocal interpretation as well as to eat salad off the floor, honk like an asthmatic bicycle horn, and waddle around the room naked as a--well, a jaybird. These indignities he sustains with a stoic serenity worthy of commendation from the Audubon Society, if nowhere else.

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