With `Blue Room,' drama is mostly off stage


January 17, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Every now and then a show comes along that has more drama surrounding it than there is on stage. David Hare's "The Blue Room," receiving its Baltimore premiere at the Spotlighters Theatre, is a prime example.

I wouldn't go so far as to call it a case of the emperor's new clothes, tempting as that might be since the show has a generous display of nudity. The nudity, however, is the cause of all the attention.

In London and New York, where Nicole Kidman appeared in the buff, "The Blue Room" not only made headlines and magazine covers, it became one of the hottest tickets on two continents. The brouhaha surrounding the play "has certainly been one of the odder events of my life," Hare writes in his recently released diary, "Acting Up." Even at the Spot- lighters, the on-stage nudity has generated more than the usual media interest.

If this proves we are a prurient society, then I suppose at least one of Hare's points has been made. Basically, "The Blue Room" -- a loose, updated adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's "La Ronde" (written in 1900) -- is a play about sex. Not romance, not relationships -- just sex. And as we all know, sex sells.

In his introduction to the published script, Hare describes Schnitzler's theme as "the gulf between what we imagine, what we remember, and what we actually experience." But nothing that deep is apparent here. Nor does Schnitzler's commentary about sex crossing class barriers make much of an impact.

The play's most intriguing element is its clever structure -- a series of 10 scenes, each involving two characters, one of whom continues into the next scene in a neat little chain of sexual encounters. Borrowing a device occasionally used in productions of "La Ronde," Hare intended "The Blue Room" to be performed by a cast of two. This made the show an acting tour de force, and it may also have been a way of suggesting that all of the various characters are different facets of our sexual personae.

At the Spotlighters, director Bob Russell has cast 10 actors, eliminating this thematic consideration. Furthermore, the short sketches leave little room for character development.

Still, the performers acquit themselves adequately or better. Among the more notable performances are those of Dahlia Kaminsky as a young prostitute, Mark Steckbeck as a hypocritical politician and Kim Webb as a domineering actress.

Besides enlarging the cast, Russell relies on a considerable amount of scenery and props, much of which has to be carted in and out between scenes. This no doubt contributes to the feeling that the scenes get longer as the evening progresses. A more abstract approach would not only speed things up, it might metaphorically reinforce the theme of the emptiness of these sexual liaisons.

Most of all, however, the problem with "The Blue Room" is that it says all it has to say -- about the meaningless of sex, the need for sex, sexual dominance and sexual misunderstandings -- in the first few scenes. Then it says it over and over again. The sense of sameness may be deliberate, but it's not particularly dramatic.

Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 6. Tickets are $10. (For mature audiences.) Call 410-752-1225.

Theater conference

Towson University became an international theater mecca this past weekend when more than 120 theater artists and educators from 20 countries attended "A Conference for Theatre Makers and Trainers: International Origins for New Theatre Practice."

An extensive series of workshops, panel discussions and demonstrations, the conference examined the relationship between creating theater and training theater artists.

It's a relationship that already exists in many other countries, where theaters -- particularly those with state support -- are often connected to training institutions, said Juanita Rockwell, head of Towson's graduate theater program and co-director of the Baltimore conference along with Theatre Project founder Philip Arnoult.

One of the weekend's four presenters was Anne Wanjugu, a former TV and film actress in Kenya who has created a theater troupe made up of children formerly living on the streets of Nairobi. Using techniques ranging from mime to Chinese acrobatics, Wanjugu has not only trained the young people in theater, she has given them a home and imbued them with feelings of self-reliance and trust.

The other presenters included Marijke Hoogenboom, who helped create DasArts Foundation, the only postgraduate professional theater program in the Netherlands; Tamas Fodor, whose Studio K in Budapest is a community of artists committed to alternative theater; and Putu Wijaya, who works with Teater Mandiri in Indonesia, which seeks to combine indigenous contemporary work with Balinese theater traditions.

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