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Escape From Paradise

Goodman Theatre Studio

Looking for paradise? You may want to rethink that search after seeing Regina Taylor's one-woman show Escape From Paradise, a dance-dream-travelogue that follows a successful African-American writer on her tour of Italy and her flight from--and into--her psyche. Jenine's journey through Italy, through the art and mystique of Europe, triggers memories of her struggle to find paradise in racist America. This is not simply a personal version of Eyes on the Prize, however. Race here is an individual issue--shaped by culture but negotiated by each citizen in a unique and even surreal way: in Taylor's world men become women, women grow men from their thighs like tumors, Italy becomes an American field full of fireflies. She creates bitter, almost satirical portraits of the people who haunt Jenine's journey, guiding her through a labyrinth of dislocation and self-discovery.

Escape From Paradise, written and performed by a woman best known as an actor in the television series I'll Fly Away, is an ironic, ambitious new play--in general an evening of skillfully performed poetic theater. Though the narrative describes a ritual journey, it's rarely abstract or literary, driven as it is by Taylor's athletic energy. Squatting, clutching her belly, crawling, leaping, crouching under a table, Taylor moves around the stage as if memory has made time into a physical space that can be crossed as decisively and absolutely as an ocean. Together the script, choreography, and projected images reproduce the twists of a maze, with its sudden turns, dead ends, and revisited corridors. We meet characters and hear their stories several times, from different perspectives that give new details, challenging our perceptions. Taylor's repeated gestures layer each story with the emotional charge of earlier situations.

Through both a voice-over and the character of a Venice cabby, we learn that "the mind of a traveler is like the mind of a sleepwalker--you are in different places and times at the same time." Taylor's travels are skillfully fleshed out by the design team at the Goodman. Royd Climenhaga's projections and Michael Bodeen's soundscape give solidity to the play's sleepwalking landscapes, establishing Jenine's grandfather's farm or her parent's house with a spray of branches across the stage or the tortured honking of her father's saxophone. Scott Cooper's set--a battered wall and arched windows--forms a malleable backdrop for the shifting action.

But the technical support would be meaningless without Taylor's skillful vocal and physical characterizations. Like Anna Deavere Smith, she distinguishes men and women by using the full range of her voice and by adopting culturally "appropriate" postures and expressions. Jenine's tormented father has a stiff, conventionally masculine broadness to his shoulders, pushes his gestures out with force and venom, and grimaces without the fluidity of emotions we usually associate with women. His afflicted wife turns in on herself, touching her throat with small stroking gestures; on her face we read the joy and pain of years flickering behind numbed despair. Taylor's supporting characters appear only briefly, but these gestures and postures create readable emotional and social moments, informed by Jenine's consciousness as a descendant of slaves and an inheritor of the African-American struggle.

Taylor's most interesting portraits are the incidental characters: a seer/bag lady, a secretary, cabdrivers, and Jenine's Italian one-night stand. They provide a welcome comic break from the sometimes surreal agony of Jenine's family and friends and speak more playful truths than Jenine and her family, truths that resonate through all the stories. Jenine's secretary, hunched in a word-processing posture, speculates about her tendency to drift away from conversations, wondering (as her husband and colleagues do) where she goes. We find out where Jenine goes, but it was the secretary's fantasy about drifting away and never returning that haunted me.

The play's ambiguous ending--Jenine seems to find peace, passing through a doorway full of light--is a little symbolic and vague set against the specificity of her traveling companions. And I wonder whether Jenine has cut short her political and personal odyssey. Is she following in her secretary's escapist footsteps? Or has she found, like the New York cabby who quotes Dr. Seuss, a balanced position, having traveled through racism, ambition, and her own memories with resilience and a sense of adventure? Since Taylor has framed her story with the Greek myth of Theseus, who traveled through the Minotaur's labyrinth and killed the monster, the doorway seems a positive symbol, a release: Jenine has escaped the cultural and personal maze of her confusion and grief. Yet because Taylor's narrative is dominated by torment and disconnection and interwoven with stories of similar pilgrimages that end badly or never end at all, a peaceful conclusion seems suspect. Because nothing is sure in this travelogue, Jenine's doorway could lead to yet another maze.

The untrustworthiness and surreal juxtapositions of the mind's world are what make this story interesting, however. Taylor splices the past and present together like a movie--memories are triggered by horns honking, a fall of light, a building's facade. She has a forceful, complicated vision as a playwright, confronting the audience with a mix of political, psychological, and mythological worlds that's bound to reconfigure our own journeys toward, or away from, paradise. Flashbacks blur into Jenine's Italian tour to form a continuous present; but the future is still in question.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Subia.

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