Sunday, October 25, 2015

Thanks for a Finely-Crafted Play

The stage is dominated by a big white bed and by a huge, selection of bright-colored clothing hanging high up all the way along the back of the stage. Those clothes and a long shelf of books fairly loom above you, at least from the fifth row, suggesting not only their owner's glamour and wealth but also her ability (need!) to shift rapidly among roles and moods. The big bed – just a white sheet on it, no blankets, ready for action – also tells you a little about its owner.

Sixty years ago, that paragraph might already be making you think of Marilyn Monroe, the subject of Mark Medoff's excellent Marilee and Baby Lamb. The well-conceived and well-crafted set might also suggest (accurately) you were in store for an absorbing play. If you missed its recent five-day run at the Rio Grande Theater in Las Cruces, I'm sorry.

I should also stress, as Mark has consistently done in his facebook posts and conversation, that this was a collaboration. With a fine cast, partly local but featuring two leading ladies who came to Las Cruces to do this play. With an extensive design and production staff. With producer Dennis D'Amica. But above all with Lena Pepitone, whom Mark never met.

D'Amica, a former student of Mark's at NMSU, met Ms. Pepitone seven years ago. Ms. Pepitone had worked extensively with Ms. Monroe during the last several years of Monroe's life. She was Monroe's intimate confidante, and they were friends. She observed a lot, and D'Amica interviewed her on video over the course of the next three years. Much of the play's material comes from those interviews. Sadly, Pepitone died in 2011. She can neither elaborate on her story nor enjoy the fruits of her conversations with D'Amica.

Both two leads (and five local actors) give excellent performances in what doesn't seem the easiest play to act in. Two men play multiple roles, which adds to the difficulty – and perhaps unconsciously supports the suggestion that here men are secondary. The two women are the story.

Some of that story you may know: that Monroe was a lot smarter than she let on, but playing the “dumb blonde” – a role the world forced on her – was convenient and profitable; that she was both magnetic and insecure; and that her involvement with politicians and at least one mafioso were dangerous to her health. The play shows us the Marilyn-Lena love story convincingly and keeps us highly interested; and without necessarily sharing Pepitone's certainty (which the interview tapes themselves might lead us to do), we certainly accept the possibility/probability that Monroe was murdered.

Years ago it seemed to me that Mark's strongest work was his collaboration with Phyllis Frelich to portray the angst and frustration of a deaf person in Children of a Lesser God. Mark's skills, wit, and humor stirred her unique and sometimes painful experiences into an excellent theatrical cocktail.  Frelich had something that desperately needed saying, and Mark had the ability to tell it with just the right touches of drama and humor. 
Now we are older. Mellower, maybe. Mark has thought (and been taught, by his wife and three daughters, among others) a lot about feminism and about being a woman in this particular world. In Marilee and Little Lamb, he expresses movingly what he's learned, along with what Lena Pepitone had to teach us about some of our misperceptions, stereotypes, and perhaps prejudices. 
I'm guessing the play will get a much longer theatrical run in a much bigger city soon. Certainly it should.
[The column above appeared today, Sunday, 25 October in the Las Cruces Sun-News, and will appear later in the day on KRWG-TV's website.]
[Thinking further about this, ten days after we saw the play, I think the column doesn't stress sufficiently how Mark Medoff seems to me to have grown as a playwright.  This play is marvelously written; but Mark could always do that; and it's well-directed -- which it would have been decades ago, although I'm sure he's deepened his command of that craft over the years.  What I appreciate also is the entire complex task of staging the play.  It's not merely the clever words or the actors' delivery of dialogue and their nonverbal contributions.  The set.  The lighting.  The different ways we're taken quickly from one scene or issue to a very different one, from Marilyn with Joe DiMaggio or Arthur Miller to Lena with her husband, Joe.  The use of space.  The interesting decision to use the same actor to play Miller and DiMaggio and a gangster, while Algernon D'Ammassa plays both Kennedy brothers and Frank Sinatra.  (I don't know why Mark did that; but it seems to work.  It doesn't detract; and I see a benefit in it, as noted in the column, although I don't know that that's one of the benefits Mark saw in it.)  What I think I'm struggling to express is that plays are staged now in new ways, and Medoff has broadened and deepened his sense of what's possible and what works.]

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