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A Shayna Maidel/Whatever Happened to B.B. Jane?

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A SHAYNA MAIDEL

Circle Theatre

at the Synergy Center

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO B.B. JANE?

Circle Theatre

at the Synergy Center

Surely it's coincidence that the Circle Theatre company of Forest Park has chosen these two plays to showcase its work to Chicago audiences. The two scripts both deal with sisterly devotion and alienation. But one is a serious, powerful study of Jewish women's lives wrecked by the Nazi Holocaust, while the other is a campy mix of musical comedy and melodrama that mocks the very themes the first play illuminates. Strange.

I don't mean to mislead you: A Shayna Maidel and Whatever Happened to B.B. Jane? aren't being presented as a double bill. They're two full-length works running in rotating repertory at the Synergy Center in Wicker Park, where the Circle ensemble has come for a few months to reach a new audience. Still, however inadvertently, the choice of these two plays is an accurate reflection of the sensibility of Circle's cofounder and artistic director, Wayne Buidens--a wildly eclectic sensibility whose imaginativeness and occasional brilliance go a long way toward compensating for the haphazardness of these productions.

A Shayna Maidel is Barbara Lebow's story of the reunion of a fatefully separated family. Rayzel Weiss and her father Mordechai are Polish Jews who lived in New York during the 1930s and '40s. But Rayzel's mother and sister were trapped in Poland, and for years their fate has been unknown. In 1946, Rayzel's sister Lusia comes to New York--to stay with Rayzel while she searches for her husband Duvid, whom she hasn't seen since they were carted off to separate concentration camps.

Lusia's sudden appearance forces Rayzel to consider her own life--what she has lost and what she has been fortunate enough to hold on to. Raised in America, Rayzel thinks of herself as American--she wants to fit in. She has changed her name to Rose White (though she doesn't dare tell her ultraconservative father this) and has made a home for herself in a Manhattan apartment while her father stays with the rest of the family back in Brooklyn. Lusia's presence helps bring Rayzel and her father closer together--but the connection is painful, as Rayzel realizes how little she knows her family's, and her people's, history. Meanwhile, under Lusia's quiet and inscrutable surface lies a world of memories and fantasies, which come to life unexpectedly with the poetic resonance only a play can create.

While rooted firmly in the specifics of the experience of Jews in the mid- 20th century, A Shayna Maidel pushes universal buttons. It speaks to the conflicted feelings--the resentments, the love, the mysteries--that virtually all people have for their parents, living or dead. And, in terribly timely fashion, it speaks to the incredible fragility of our lives and fortunes. Watching Rayzel talk about taking a bubble bath in a formula called "Surrender" to a sister for whom "surrender" has terribly real meaning, or Rayzel stand in her fur coat ready for dinner while her father and sister compare long- guarded lists of missing family and friends, you can't help but think of the lives shattered in Kuwait and Iraq by the recent war while our own existences were barely affected--unless we had friends or family who died.

This is an enormously powerful play whose power is both enhanced and diminished by Buidens's erratic direction. On the minus side are sluggish pacing, a truly ugly set, and a lamentable use of schlocky background recordings by people like Barbra Streisand and Johnny Mathis that cheapen the characters' emotions and suggest an inappropriate time frame for the action. On the plus side there's Buidens's eye for casting. AnnMarie Heiman is simply remarkable as Lusia--gaunt and spiritually deep yet girlish and sexual as she seeks a new life while lingering mentally in the one she has barely survived. Stephanie Heller is powerful as Rayzel, coming to terms with a side of herself she has never acknowledged. Dean Kharasch's expressiveness as Duvid contrasts effectively with Sheldon Baren's stiffness as Mordechai, while Aggie Griffin's simple strength as Mama and Karen Weinberg's giddy girlishness as Lusia's girlfriend Hanna make you feel the loss Lusia has suffered. Circle's A Shayna Maidel is flawed but beautiful, and the night I went there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Whatever Happened to B.B. Jane?, as its title indicates, is a spoof of Robert Aldrich's 1962 movie about two aging sisters, once popular stars of stage and screen, now locked in a cycle of dependence and resentment. Almost from the time this psychological thriller cum black comedy was released, its characters merged with the stars who played them, the rivalry between drunken vaudevillian Baby Jane Hudson and her crippled movie-queen sister Blanche becoming intertwined in the public eye with the feud between tart-tongued Bette Davis and the hypocritically saintlike Joan Crawford.

Wayne Buidens directed and wrote this parody, and his script relies heavily on Lukas Heller's screenplay. Buidens gives Davis and Crawford the Rocky Horror Show treatment, turning them into the iconic center of a pop-music party. Some of his ideas are inspired. "I've Written a Letter to Daddy," Baby Jane's signature tune, segues into a 1960s Supremes medley, with little Jane (an engaging and energetic Eddie Schumacher) belting out "Baby Love" and jealous sister Blanche (husky-voiced Tyron' Sean Perry) rasping the pleading lyrics of "Love Child." (In a move that both embraces and cleverly satirizes the ethics of color-blind casting, Schumacher and the actor playing Jane and Blanche's mother are white, while Perry and the actor playing their father are black.) Later, when Jane kicks Blanche senseless, Deanna Norman--who has the Bette Davis impersonation down to a tee--strips down to black fishnets and merry widow and belts out "I Get a Kick Out of You," while a line of dancing chorus boys rhythmically stomp Blanche into the floor. The genteel neighbor ladies from the movie have been transformed into a butch lesbian takeoff on Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, while Blanche's subservient black maid is now a white, gum-chewing Connie Francis wanna-be.

Best of all is Michael Colin Reed's characterization of Blanche. A graceful dancer with a mellifluous voice, a heightened sense of the dramatic, and a wicked way with an improvised aside, Reed is funny and flawless as Blanche-Crawford, whether she's cooing to her little bird Trog, reminding the maid never to use wire hangers, or leaping from her wheelchair into a fantasy ballet perfectly en pointe.

Like many parties, this one goes on longer than it should, thanks to a few too many musical interludes showcasing the talents of an eager chorus of cross-dressers known as the Babe-ettes, who trot through a series of Monroe, Merman, Garland, and Divine impersonations. But when Reed and Norman take center stage, Whatever Happened to B.B. Jane? is a hoot.

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