Stevens weaves broad themes into `Poisoner'

Theater Review

September 11, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Claudia Stevens timed the premiere of her one-woman show, The Poisoner on the Train, to coincide with the anniversary of Sept. 11. And the performer's latest monologue with music is surely one of the more eclectic, idiosyncratic works of art to emerge on that subject to date.

The impetus for the piece was a conversation Stevens had with a stranger who sat next to her on a train trip from her home in Richmond, Va., in early 2002. The man - whom she dubs "The Poisoner" - claimed that, as a former member of the cult of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, he participated in and served time for the 1984 salmonella poisonings of 750 people at salad bars in Oregon.

Her encounter with this self-confessed bioterrorist, however, is just one of many disparate elements Stevens weaves into this intriguing but excessively wide-ranging work, currently at the Theatre Project. She also incorporates an account of her acrimonious divorce, references to her family's Holocaust history, and even an updated version of Scheherazade of Arabian Nights fame, among other topics.

It's a lot of freight to load onto a 90-minute piece, even for a performance artist with Stevens' talent for creating art from unlikely juxtapositions - a talent exemplified in her haunting 2002 Theatre Project performance of In the Puppeteer's Wake, which interwove fairy tales and the Holocaust.

But engrossing as many of the components of The Poisoner on the Train may be, they are too diffuse (and occasionally self-indulgent) to achieve the intensity of her previous works. Throw in the musical aspects of Poisoner - Stevens' vocal and keyboard renditions of original compositions as well as selections by composers ranging from Rimsky-Korsakov to John Gay, Kurt Weill and Roger Sessions - and the result is a work whose expansive sweep might benefit from the focused vision of an outside director or editor.

Part of the difficulty may be that Stevens' themes are even broader then her subject matter. Betrayal and survival are two of the issues she raises, along with the more complex and specific issue of exploiting tragedy for art. She attempts to bring all these themes together by framing the piece with the modern-day Scheherazade character.

But unlike her Arabian Nights counterpart, who spun stories to save her life, Stevens' Sheherazade betrays the confidence of the Poisoner by telling his story simply to win the favor of a man she meets in a Midwestern bed-and-breakfast. It may seem like a trivial trade-off, and yet, isn't Stevens doing the same thing? Isn't she using the story of a terrorist to create entertainment?

One of the most arresting things about The Poisoner on the Train is the way Stevens candidly questions her own motives, along with those of a culture that is all too quick to take advantage of atrocities.

The Poisoner on the Train is the second work Stevens has premiered at the Theatre Project. Baltimore audiences also saw the debut of her 1994 piece, Playing Paradis, which used the true story of a blind 18th- century Viennese musician to provide a window into her parents' secret past as Holocaust survivors.

Like that piece on first viewing, Poisoner has some rough edges. Despite the abundance of subjects and characters, however, this new work is never confusing. But while the audience may not get lost, the piece itself loses some of its impact by trying to be, do and say too much.

Theater

What: The Poisoner on the Train

Where Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 19

Tickets $16

Call 410-752-8558

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