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Mothers and Daughters


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Piven Theatre Workshop

Every woman, I suppose, has a quarrel with her mother. It may run very deep, as Joyce Piven says of hers with her mother, or not deep at all, as her daughter Shira says of theirs. In Mothers and Daughters (subtitled "A Cross Cultural Collage") these two women try to explore the depths of that relationship, that indestructible bond. I say "try" because while much of the material here is quite good, not all of it succeeds.

Mothers and Daughters, directed by the women of the Piven family, showcases writing by Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Cynthia Ozick, Lorrie Moore, and Liliana Hecker. Joyce and Shira Piven have used an innovative style of "story theater" to keep every word faithful to the authors and yet still produce some powerful drama. They've treated the text in an almost musical style--letting the characters perform in loose choruses, and emphasizing certain refrains--while blocking with an elaborate, almost danceable choreography.

This works best in Moore's "What Is Seized," a dark portrait of a mother's descent into lunacy as seen through the eyes of her daughter. Shira Piven lets Tria Smith tell the daughter's story, using still-life poses by Smith and Adele Robbins, who plays the mother exquisitely, to represent photographs that spark the daughter's memories of her mother. Smith and Robbins almost dance; their touch is intimate, often painful, and infinitely believable. These women love each other, and Shira Piven shows us both the strength and the fragility of that love. Thom Vernon, who plays the father, is also convincing in his peripheral role of a man who is both cold and almost magically charming. Vernon's at once fanciful and abruptly violent moves let the audience see--rather than merely be told about--the complex nature of the character.

All three pieces directed solely by Shira Piven--"What Is Seized," "The Stolen Party," and "Waverly Jong's Story (The Chess Game)"--feature tremendous activity and a full use of the theatrical space. The actors are not merely blocked; they create whole universes. In Ozick's "The Shawl," which is codirected by mother and daughter, Shira's choreographic influence particularly shows in the way the actors define and redefine the space on the empty stage, conjuring up everything from hard roads to suffocating barracks, open fields to distant fences.

"The Swan," directed by Joyce Piven, suffers by comparison to the other work in the show. As an elaborate literary reading it would be fine, but as theater it is uncommonly flat. Part of the problem lies in the director's decision to re-create the story in a single scene, with Lee Chen acting as a kind of lead singer while Smith, Robbins, Ann Cusack, and Jenna Ford serve as a chorus. This is the most songlike of the stories (Shira Piven even composed music for it), but it is the least dynamic in staging and the most lacking in nuance.

But the main problem with "The Swan"--and with three of the show's other pieces--stems from the material. All three Tan pieces (taken from The Joy Luck Club), and the Morrison piece (taken from Beloved) seem slightly disconnected. They are all well-written, intense, and important because they are about women of color. But because they're selected excerpts from novels--they're not actually "whole" stories--they suffer from a lack of resolution. The scenes tend to end before the stories have.

"The Stolen Party," the program's Hispanic entry (written by Liliana Hecker), seems less about mother/daughter relationships than about class issues. But newcomer Laura Cisneros is delightful as the maid's eager daughter. The Morrison excerpt, curiously dull and predictable compared to some of her other work, features some fine performances, but Cusack--try as she might--is impossible to believe in her role as a poor, white southern woman who aids a runaway slave. She's just too glamorous with her perfectly mussed hair and her elegant posture.

Perhaps the most devastating performance of the evening belongs to Marilyn Dodds Frank, who plays the mother in "The Shawl," a story about the death of a Jewish baby in a German concentration camp. The story's tension never lets up, but Dodds never disappoints; every time she's called to go up one more excruciating emotional notch, she does so flawlessly. Her tour de force comes at the end of the first half of the show, making it almost impossible to concentrate on the second. Thank god for intermission.

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