July 17, 2002

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Molly's folly
The Ghost of Molly Malone can't quite reach the present tense.

By Brad Rosenstein

 

MOLLY MALONE IS a legendary Irish figure, a fishmonger of easy virtue but indomitable spirit who has been celebrated in song, memorialized in bronze, and commemorated in the names of pubs. Playwright Aoise Stratford adopts elements of the tale of "The Tart with a Cart" for her own purposes in The Ghost of Molly Malone, currently premiering in a coproduction by Three Wise Monkeys Theatre Company and Footloose @ Venue 9. Molly is incarnated variously by Old Molly (Michaela Greeley), who has survived the centuries to become a bag lady in current-day Chicago, by Young Molly (Arwen Anderson) in 17th-century Dublin, and by Lois (Lillian Oglesby), a contemporary troubled teen who has much in common with Molly.

The play intercuts between the three women, charting the spirited Young Molly's loss of her beloved husband, Pat (Michael J. Symonds), to Cromwell's invaders, her narrow escape to England, and her tenuous survival in workhouses, on the streets, and in the lunatic asylum at Bedlam. All this is relived by Old Molly, which connects her to Lois, who also faces moral judgments about her drug use, her sexuality, and her uneasy reliance on social institutions and men as she struggles to survive. The script labors to make the point of how little has changed for women in more than 300 years.

What's interesting is a peculiar disparity in Stratford's writing: her 17th-century scenes are infinitely sharper and more convincing than her contemporary scenes, which limp from cliché to cliché. It doesn't help matters that the strongest actors of the 10-member ensemble predominate in the period scenes. Oglesby doesn't have the chops to pull off Lois, especially when Stratford encumbers her with overwritten explanatory monologues. The gifted Greeley has more to offer, but there isn't a whole lot for her to do besides be a weary-wise matriarchal presence. Anderson and Symonds do the evening's strongest work, along with Jayson Matthews as a pretentious contemporary sleazeball.

The Ghost of Molly Malone has admirable ambitions, and it's a pleasure to see a small theater tackling a play of this scope. Emily Ehrlich Inget's costumes are rich, and while Zanne Gerard's direction tends toward the literal-minded, she stages the frequent set changes with fluid precision. But unfortunately the play doesn't make much of a case for its emotionally isolated main characters, tending to schematize rather than dramatize their plights. The odd result is that the script winds up presenting the women much as the repressive male characters in the play see them: as angry and opaque rather than as whole people.

Bloodless 'Macbeth'

Kate Whoriskey is one of the country's most highly touted young directors, and her Macbeth at the California Shakespeare Festival marks her Bay Area debut. Whoriskey is particularly noted for visually vibrant takes on the classics, and on that score this production does not disappoint. Robert Pyzocha's set blots out the beautiful natural setting of Bruns Amphitheatre with encroaching walls, a lightbox floored with pink sand recedes behind a stage coated with black ash, and white trees stand as lifeless as skeletons. In Meg Neville's costumes, there's not a single tartan in sight, only inky blacks and bone whites and funerary silvers. The entire mise-en-scène weds the starkness of Robert Wilson and the simplicity of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.

But all that visual sophistication is as good as this Macbeth gets. The production overall is stiff and bloodless in every sense – each acting choice seems inspired more by a master's thesis than by a human instinct. From its peculiar prologue, a postmodern dance evocation of the storm choreographed by Marc A. Morozumi, to its rocker-babe witches – who are presented with an odd humorlessness – the production just can't seem to decide how to mix its hip and its Bard.

For an actor with generous Shakespearean credits, Boris McGiver seems amazingly out of his depth in the title role. Mia Barron's Lady Macbeth is pitched so hysterically from the start that she seems to be playing the sleepwalking scene in her first appearance. Only James Carpenter's Macduff and Julie Eccles's Lady Macduff strike genuine emotional sparks. Whoriskey finds some moments that work, such as the truly eerie image of Macduff's son leaning forward to eavesdrop on the adults discussing his impending murder, but overall the thick July fog in Orinda was the most chilling element of this Macbeth.

'The Ghost of Molly Malone' runs through Aug 3. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun/28, 2 p.m., Venue 9, 252 Ninth St., S.F. $12-$15. (415) 289-2000.

'Macbeth' runs through Sun/28. Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. (also Sat., 2 p.m.); Sun., 4 p.m., Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, Gateway Blvd. exit off Hwy. 24, Orinda. $13-$46. (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org.