`The Swan' is a flight of fancy

Review: Christopher Lane's portrayal of the bird is a marvel in this loopy love story.

February 08, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Any woman who's ever thought that men are another species may recognize the protagonist's predicament in Elizabeth Egloff's The Swan.

Egloff, whose Turgenev adaptation The Lover premiered at Center Stage in 1996, also explored the theme of love in The Swan, but this time she's writing about trans-species romance. Part Greek myth, part Swan Lake and part soap opera, the play is mostly bizarre. But it's also wildly funny, rather touching and splendidly acted at Rep Stage in Columbia, under Kasi Campbell's direction.

Repeatedly unlucky in love, Dora, a Nebraska nurse, is awakened one night by a trumpeter swan that crashes into her living room window. She takes the wounded bird into her house and, as it recovers, it molts into a gawky but handsome naked man. At least, it looks like a man. Its behavior definitely is swan-like. (Prudish theatergoers be warned, a naked man is on stage for several scenes.)

Christopher Lane's depiction of the swan, which Dora calls "Bill," is simply extraordinary. For much of the play, he crouches on the balls of his feet with his arms akimbo and his hands jutting out behind him. Nor does he stand still in this pose (which probably would be impossible). Instead, he dashes around the set at a furious pace (which seems even more difficult), leaping on furniture, overturning lamps and perching on top of the refrigerator.

And he's far from silent. Initially screaming, honking and ululating, he eventually begins to speak, but his speech has a decided "honking" quality. Three seasons ago, Lane delivered an equally impressive but far less complex portrayal of another non-human character, the troubled stable-boy's favorite horse in Olney Theatre Center's production of Equus. The actor attacks these roles with the precision of a dancer and the stamina of an athlete.

In The Swan, Lane is a man portraying a swan who appears to be mutating into a man, complete with all the conflicted emotions that go along with his half-man, half-bird state. He is, as Bill says, "caught" in his body, and Lane makes his dilemma wrenching.

Meanwhile, Sherri L. Edelen's Dora craves magic and romance. Dora is desperate for love, but she's also slightly loopy. Can a girl from Nebraska find happiness with a swan? Is the swan her Prince Charming (a kind of reversed Swan Lake)? Or is he Zeus to her Leda? Or, for that matter, has Dora gone bonkers?

That's what her nebbishy boyfriend, Kevin, thinks. A married milkman, Jack E. Vernon portrays Kevin as the embodiment of the ordinary. In a play about a swan and the girl who loves him, it seems odd that the one "normal" character comes across as a cartoon, but Kevin is too thinly drawn to make this offbeat romantic triangle ring true.

Considering Egloff's perfunctory handling of Kevin, it's no wonder our heroine prefers a creature with a bird's brain to a boring Nebraska milkman.

In the end, The Swan essentially is a fable whose moral is: Take a chance on love. Dora believes "love is the only thing that matters," and Bill believes love will set him free. The leap, the risk, the adventure is everything.

With that in mind, director Campbell would have been wise to orchestrate swifter scene changes. The play consists of two dozen scenes performed without intermission. The Swan needs to take flight, but Rep Stage's production bogs down during the blackouts.

Tony Cisek's sparse, homely set also is a disappointment. The design should be humdrum, not institutionally spartan. For example, a little carpeting would have been a welcome touch and might have offered frenetic Lane a bit of padding. (The challenging fight and dance scenes are choreographed by Lewis Shaw).

The Swan is a play about hope, yearning and love that defies reason. Like love itself, it will strike some as ridiculous and others as hopelessly romantic. Emily Dickinson wrote, " `Hope' is the thing with feathers." The Swan takes her at her word.

The Swan

Where: Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 24

Tickets: $12-$20

Call: 410-772-4900

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