"Thoughtless follies made her low and stained her name," says Mrs. Page (Lesley Fera), referring to her actress daughter Beatrice, in J.M. Barrie's Rosalind, at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice. The line is telling because it's such a perfect description not only of Beatrice but of the 14-year-old title character in Oscar Wilde's Salome, being performed at Zombie Joe's Underground in North Hollywood. Both productions deal with age grasping for youth through the prism of romance, and are samplings of the British cultural zeitgeist about 100 years ago.
Rosalind is the first in a pair of Barrie one-acts currently playing at PRT. Mrs. Page, who's been waxing about the pleasure of middle age, is in the parlor of a boarding house by the sea, far from London, in the first decade of the 20th century. She's speaking to a young university student named Charles Roche (Kevin Railsback), who's seeking refuge from the storm outside. He instantly recognizes the photo on the mantle as the stage actress Beatrice, and protests his love of the young maiden to her mother, Mrs. Page.
To reveal more of the plot is to ruin a vital twist on which the themes of theater, role-playing and willful deception hang. Suffice it to say that Mrs. Page knows Charles well, more than he knows her, and the callow youth eventually finds himself smitten with the woman almost old enough to be his mother, who has "disappeared" into an enthusiastic middle age in her private life and yet remains eternally 29 in a stage life she shares with her daughter.
In fact, she finds herself summoned to London, in the course of the action, to jump in and play Rosalind in As You Like It.
Typical of drawing room comedies of the early 20th century, the play's launch taxes patience in the attention-deficited 21st century. The house matron, Dame Quickly (Sarah Zinsser), chats amiably and lackadaisically with Mrs. Page for several minutes before the incident of the visitor becomes an issue, revealing the gentility of an earlier time and place. But things start to spark when it becomes clear that Mrs. Page is largely goofing off with the young man, and that who an actress really is, deep down, is something of an enigma. Charles reveals the telling detail of keeping Beatrice's photograph in his wallet, directly next to that of his late sister.
Barrie's older brother died as a child, throwing their mother into such a depression that Barrie would dress in his brother's clothes and impersonate his whistling in order to console his mother, who said her dead son would remain a child forever. From this, Barrie's Peter Pan emerged.
Dana Dewes' staging gathers strength largely from the quality of Fera's decorous Mrs. Page, who bursts into a gently mocking smile with the flick of a wrist, showing ridicule and compassion in a single breath. It also comes from the effect Fera has on Railsback's haughty young student, whose swagger keeps getting kicked in the knees.
The Old Lady Shows Her Medals rounds out PRT's rendition of cougarville. Set in a 1917 London basement home, as World War I rages, it concerns a quartet of British maids, known as charwomen (Penny Safranek, Roses Prichard, Sarah Zinsser and Jennifer Lonsway), one of whom has been corresponding with and sending cakes to a Scottish soldier in the Black Watch brigade who shares her last name, though they're not related and have never met. The play is not only about her need for a son, but her need to be connected to the larger campaign of her nation.
Ushered down the stairs by a local reverend (William Lithgow), the brash Scot soldier (Joe McGovern), on leave, at first chastizes the old woman for being deluded and misrepresenting her situation and station. What emerges is tender, sentimental Oedipal romance, fueled by Safranek's Mrs. Dowey and her defiant refusal to take any of soldier Kenneth Dowey's insults seriously. Rather, her offensive so charms the orphan Scot that, after a night at the theater (of course), he winds up on his knee, proposing that she be his mother. The play flips the taboo into the sentimental, largely with hefty doses of wit.
McGovern is quite the wonder as Kenneth, bringing a hearty honesty to lines such as, "Being Scotch, there's almost nothing I don't know," and when asked how he single-handedly took half a dozen prisoners, he responds, "The usual way. I surrounded 'em!"
This play, too, sags at the front end, but Marilyn Fox's staging eventually pulls its dangling expository ropes tautly against the stained green wallpaper of Nick Santiago's set.
Inverting the age and gender divide back to dirty old men, Oscar Wilde's Salome concerns the Bible's King Herod (Tim Ottoman), who leers too much at his 14-year-old stepdaughter, Salome (Lita Penaherrera). Spurning the counsel of his wife (Sasha Ilford), who's also Salome's mother, he offers Salome anything she desires if she will only dance for him. That she does, in erotic contortions. But what's the price of five minutes or so of ecstasy — particularly ecstasy grounded in a delusion bordering on prostitution?
Like Beatrice, Salome is an actress for hire. Her what-her-heart-desires payment is John the Baptist's head on a silver platter, because he deigned to spurn her when she wanted to kiss his lips.
Wilde wrote the play shortly before he was imprisoned on charges of moral turpitude, so the consequences of illicit desire must have been on his mind. The play is in many ways Salome's tragedy of virgin love, that she'd kill what she can't possess rather than reconcile herself to a world that bestows its gratifications fleetingly. Robert Prior stages and costumes the 60-minute redux with visual acuity, with floating silks, body paint and some hunky casting underscoring the play's poetical eroticism.
And though, to his credit, he has not resorted to campiness, the production weaves in and out of a style that fits the tiny space. The language is so sprawling, calling for a grandiloquence that Prior serves up — resulting in fitful melodrama and a supporting cast who don't quite know how to handle watching an epic showdown between the tetrarch and the impish, snotty kid who got him so overheated.
As that kid, Penaherrera is spot-on, sexy, relentlessly peevish and filled with "thoughtless follies that made her low and stained her name."
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Douglas Rory Milliron and Ilford have a firm grip, respectively, as Puritan Prophet from Chippendales and the aging queen who'd love to have a piece of him, but, since she can't, is happy to see him decapitated. Ottoman's Herod has a reasoned, even halting restraint, which works nicely in juxtaposition against his stepdaughter's rabid fury.
Still, Prior, with his epic and broad-swathed imagination, is fighting the space, the walls that close in on the grandeur of his concept. This is a venue suited to the kind of gothic camp usually staged here. Prior's decision to take the play seriously deserves respect, for its integrity and its courage. Now he needs the space to let it fly.
OSCAR WILDE'S SALOME | By Oscar Wilde | Zombie Joe's Underground | 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Sat., 8:30 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m. | Through July 17 | (818) 202-4120 | zombiejoes.com
BARRIE: BACK TO BACK | Rosalind and The Old Lady Shows Her Medals | By J.M. Barrie | Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 8 p.m. | Through Aug. 7 | (310) 822-8392 | pacificresidenttheatre.com