Lone Wolf Series
nytheatre.com review by J Jordan
May 16, 2008
The Lone Wolf Series, presented by Coyote Rep, is a compilation of four one-woman shows about isolation, or, as the press materials say, "stepping away from the pack." After seeing all four shows—two are shown each evening—I'm of the mind one walks away from these pieces with a little of each.
The four shows are as different from one another as the women who act, sing, dance, and create music in them. The first, Stella by Starlight, concerns a jazz pianist who can't swing—that is, until she gets a supernatural visit from none other than her idol Herbie Hancock. Hancock becomes her magical mentor and teaches her what we all know: the swing was there all along. That piece was a dynamic juxtaposition with You got questions? I got answers! wherein women of different ages and cultural backgrounds answer a pretty tough question: When do you feel most isolated?
In the cowboy is dying a very complicated little girl with a relationship with God grows up to be a very complicated young woman who in her heart just wants to be a cowboy. Ready, willing, and able to take life by the horns, the main character in this piece couldn't be more different from the woman in Spoiled Bea, a former dancer we meet post-car accident who is now rendered speechless and immobile. It's hard to say between these characters who is more boxed in, and who does a better job of getting out.
Stella, the main character of Stella by Starlight, is about as awkward as a football bat when it comes to music. Still, jazz is the love of her life. Heidi Tokheim not only acts out all the characters in Stella's jazz world, including a cheeky, delightful interpretation of Herbie Hancock, she plays his music too, along with her own. Everything about Tokheim changes, from her voice and rhythm to her posture at the piano, as she invokes the jazz legend and she seems to thoroughly enjoy shifting back and forth between Stella's persona and Mr. Hancock. Oddly, the transitions between piano playing and acting don't seem organic the way something born of jazz should. Each element stands perfectly well on its own, but a lot of momentum is lost during blackouts and the switch from playing piano to acting. Still, Tokheim's genuine sparkle is enough to carry the audience through to the triumphant end (Stella gets her swing).
In You got questions? I got answers! Andrea Caban very convincingly plays a number of dramatically different women (and one little girl), each of whom is interviewed about feeling isolated. The only things these characters have in common is that they're from New York and they all feel a real lack of connection—especially in a city of eight million people, that never sleeps. Caban does a truly stellar job of making us believe she is each of these wildly varied people. My personal favorite of these interview vignettes was the perfect woman who had a nervous breakdown in college, ultimately the result of her mother cutting her off after an incident involving her stepfather got him kicked out of the house. The way Caban treats each of her characters with care and not pity shows what caliber actor she is. Hopefully we'll get to see a lot more of her.
Donnetta Lavinia Grays takes us on a trip through her Southern childhood into the confusing crossroads that is adulthood in the cowboy is dying via engaging storytelling and singing that come from that complicated, often painful place in between. Donnetta is told by God she is one of the chosen ones (her family are former Baptists on their way to becoming Jehovah's Witnesses). Only, she decides not too many years later, she's not so sure that's what—or who—she wants to be. What she wants is to fall in love, in the hopes it will help her find her rightful place. Grays, who is the dictionary definition of the word "vibrant," ably moves us through her story with both humor and heartache. There is one scene involving Grays and a chair that I will recall with a wry grin for the rest of my days.
I was nervous with the subject matter of Spoiled Bea, Jeanne LaSala's story of a woman whose life suffers a very unfortunate turn of events and is now unable to move or speak. She lives, if you can call it that, in a hospital room where she is visited by her mother and her sister, and by an attendant, played with compassion and courage by Brian Homer without ever saying a word (now THAT is acting), with whom she falls in love. Would she just sit there and act? Far from it—LaSala's Beatrice is possibly the most engaging of the characters, and certainly the wittiest. Not only that, but she can dance (so can Homer)! The freedom Bea experiences dancing is the kind we all long for. I don't know if Bea was created from some sort of personal experience, but her story is truly believable and touching. The emotion we feel for this woman at the end of the piece—not pity, not sadness, but that far deeper feeling that knows no words—is one of the most truly earned moments I've experienced in theatre.
For the most part, the design of the shows does what supporting elements are supposed to do—showcase the characters and story in the best light, set, and clothing possible. The main component set design by Grant Van Zevern had me puzzled, though. It's an incredibly beautiful geometric mosaic of bright colors that was inspiring to behold yet made me unsure of where I was on the journey between isolation and connection. The lighting design by Jason Teague generally works to move the stories forward, but it seemed at one point during the cowboy is dying to be out of sync with Grays's action. Other than that it was a solid effort.
Sound designers Mitch Greenhill and David Ogle keep the music and effects tight. Costume designer Raul Aktanov keeps with the tone of the shows but gets my thumbs up for the authentic yet believable cowboy costume donned by Grays.
All four directors, Isaac Byrne (cowboy), Rebecca Tourino (Spoiled Bea), Donnetta Lavinia Grays (Stella) and Caitlin Moon (You got questions), bear mentioning for keeping the pieces rolling steadily onward, but Tourino gets the extra applause for cementing Spoiled Bea as a truly exceptional piece.
All the characters in The Lone Wolf Series, whether separated from the pack through isolation or of their own accord, do their best to make it through this crazy world, one one-woman show at a time. Make sure you're along for the ride.