Sea Marks; The Wizard of A.I.D.S. | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Sea Marks; The Wizard of A.I.D.S.

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SEA MARKS

at the Royal-George Theatre

THE WIZARD OF A.I.D.S.

at the Raven Theatre,

Sea Marks is one of those plays guaranteed a long life in regional theaters throughout the world. The story of an intense but ill-fated romance, it's got a cast of two performing on a single set--so it's sentimental and cheap to produce. But the sentiment in Peter Forster's fine staging of the play (set by him in the 1920s) is anything but cheap. Like beachcombers sifting through the sand for rough but lovely shells, Forster and his attractive young cast, Pamela Gay and Patrick Walker, find the nuances of irony and reality underneath Gardner McKay's potentially maudlin script.

Walker plays Colm Primrose, a fisherman living in an isolated village on a small island off the coast of Ireland; Gay plays Timothea Stiles, the young Liverpool woman whom Colm courts, Having once seen Timothea at a party, the lonely and still-virgin Colm begins writing to her. Even before she knows what he looks like, the sexually experienced Timothea is aroused by the simple poetry expressed in Colm's letters. Being not only a romantic but also an ambitious young publisher's assistant, Timothea arranges to have Colm's letters published as verse, and then entices the willing lad to visit her in Liverpool. There they consummate their love, but their differences tear apart their relationship. Colm returns to his island, leaving his poetry behind as metaphorical "sea marks"--the lines that the tide etches in the coastal land.

Ironically, the conflict that ruptures Colm and Timothea's affair isn't a conflict between country boy and city girl, but rather between two country people who have had very different responses to their backgrounds. Colm draws nourishment from his homeland, while Timothea has come to Liverpool to escape her rude roots in a Welsh farming town. Using the close confines of the Royal-George Theatre's intimate Gallery space, director Forster and the actors make us feel vividly Colm and Timothea's passion for each other as well as their inability to give up their respective ways of life. When Sea Marks was first done in the 1970s, it seemed a play about love versus life-styles, a romantic fantasy about a woman who finds a good man and then loses him because of her own career ambitions. By setting the action in the 1920s, by bringing the action so close to (sometimes into) the audience, and by playing for subtley rather than bathos, Forster explores instead the quirks of the characters' interaction; from the start, the weird sense of distance that the actors convey even in their closest moments suggests the affair isn't going to work out, so those moments gain an edge of poignance that catches our attention.

Eileen Connolly's costumes and Scott Johnson's sets (except for a confusing abstract backdrop that looks like a 1960s tie-dye) nicely reflect the naive eccentricity of Timothea's efforts to transform herself from country milkmaid to modern woman circa 1922; Lisa Tomoleoni's lighting effectively transforms the postage-stamp-size stage into a visually varied area, as does Forster's inventive staging (especially in the first section, when Colm and Timothea are still only pen pals communicating across the Irish Sea). And Walker and Gay offer two excellent character studies, etched with a fine sense of detail and filled out with deep reserves of real feeling.

Real feelings are not what The Wizard of A.I.D.S. is much concerned with, and therein lies the fundamental problem with this well-intentioned show. Developed originally as a class project at the University of Iowa, and apparently intended for performance at schools, parks, churches, and hospitals, in addition to its presentation as part of the Raven Theatre's "Raven Shorties" program, The Wizard of A.I.D.S. is a brief, goofy, very collegiate spoof of The Wizard of Oz that combines reverent irreverence toward the original film with a desire to impart as much safe-sex information as possible to "Aware Individuals Deserving Survival."

While veering away from discussing specific sexual acts and their relative safeness (and never once mentioning such notions as abstinence or monogamy), Wizard does indeed communicate a number of facts, using the familiar Oz characters and situations as a stepping-off point. The rusted Tin Man's request for oil leads to a briefing on the relative safeness of water-based and oil-based lubricants; the Cowardly Lion's attempt to scare people by pretending he has AIDS and threatening to touch them is rebuffed by lecture on how AIDS is and is not spread; the randy Scarecrow is advised to use his brain by using a condom; and the Wicked Witch of Unsafe Sex (whose sister, the Wicked Witch of Needle Sharing, has been killed by a failing house) is smothered to death in a giant condom. "You prophylacticated her!" intones the "great and powerful" Wizard--who, as in the movie, is an all-too-human wizard who lacks a cure for AIDS.

But when the script moves into the area of emotions--as any educational material about sex inevitably must do--it's not up to the task. The Lion doesn't really have AIDS, he just pretends he does because he's afraid of sex after losing so many of his fellow "dandy lions" to the epidemic. And the heartless Tin Man can't love because a fickle lover once gave him a bad case of clap. These are important and sensitive issues; the show's lampoon format not only obscures them but comes close to cheapening them. And what is one to make of an AIDS education program that promotes promiscuity? When Dorothy helps the Scarecrow off his perch, the first thing he does is jump on top of her; her response to the rape attempt is a lecture about "playing safely." Huh? I also question why, in contrast to the blunt depiction of heterosexual desire in the Scarecrow's behavior, there is no display of homosexual desire or affection in the show even though both Tin Man and Lion are clearly played as gay. (Of course, as the Scarecrow notes in a line lifted straight from the original movie, "Some people do go both ways.")

Its muddled content aside, Wizard of A.I.D.S. is entertaining in a deliberately silly, bad-children's-theater way. Under Michael Barto's direction the cast is likable and talented; Tracy Gurtatowski and Sharon Frei do amusingly accurate impressions of Billie Burke and Margaret Hamilton, the good and bad witches in the original film, and Martha Murphy, playing Dorothy, has an engaging directness and a big, warm, lovely voice. There are some clever staging touches in a production clearly intended to travel light, and a few funny running gags, but most of them stem from the show's appropriation of material from the original Oz. As an AIDS educational effort--certainly one intended for school audiences--Wizard needs considerable rethinking.

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