They've Got Male

One man remembers being 5 years old and crying when his older sister went off to college. Another recalls pumping gas at a Getty station and seeing a blonde walking past in a tube top: "She's got the goods." A man who grew up with four sisters remembers "six million five hundred twenty-eight bobby pins" and "hair everywhere: in the sink, the shower, the bathroom garbage can, in the cheese spaghetti we have with fish on Fridays." And one man opines that there's nothing to compare with the sound of a woman's laughter: "It is the sound of true joy. It's simultaneously paralyzing and inspirational."

Are these the minutes of a lovesick men's club meeting, or of a gender-sensitive focus group? Nope, it's Through Men's Eyes, writer/director/actress Monica Bishop Steele's ninth and latest installment in her Women's Work series, opening this weekend at the Shimberg Playhouse of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. And maybe it was inevitable that, after putting so many different women on stage, Steele would finally turn to the way the female of the species appears from the perspective of her sons, brothers, lovers, husbands, fathers and colleagues.

Or at least part of that perspective: There are no angry or sexist men in this group, and no Mommie Dearests, Lucrezia Borgias or even Hillary Clintons in their purviews. All the women in this love letter are at best intoxicating and at worst mysterious. As one of the men says, "The exploration of your woman is the deepest you'll ever get. ... Even the meaningful glances weigh a ton."

Steele got the idea for Through Men's Eyes back in 1999, after performing Susan Miller's play My Left Breast at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center. "I met a man there who I spoke with for a long time," she says, "and he was really interesting and very moving and funny, and he was talking to me about what his experiences had been during his wife's illness with cancer, and ... at the time I felt it would be really wonderful to do a piece of theater where it was men sharing their experiences about the women in their life. ... I thought if that conversation was at all indicative of how much they had to say and how badly they wanted to say it, then it was something I ought to do."

Steele's next step was to get an OK from Judith Lisi of TBPAC, and, after that, to find five men whose reflections on women would form the bulk of the performance. She eventually found actors John Huls, Aaron Berger, David Doan, "ranney" and Paul Potenza: "They're all completely different but wonderfully supportive of each other. And that difference really creates a dynamic presentation."

Steele encouraged them to write about the females in their lives, then edited the results and directed their delivery. There are also 10 women in the production, nine of whom are involved in a large dance improvisation early on, and one of whom helps re-create a famous Alfred Eisenstadt photo. And there are several video clips throughout the show, one of actor Jeff Norton remarking on the differences of men and women, and another in which three brothers — ages 10, 12 and 14 — comment on girls, their mother, and what the world would be like without women. Add excerpts from historic letters to women ("one is very funny, some are quite poetic, others are very sweet, you know, very dear") and you have, if not a complete spectrum of men's attitudes toward women, at least a heartwarming look at the softer side of that spectrum. So why didn't Steele go for all parts of the story, including the negative images of women that, however repugnant, are still a fact in parts of American society? She says that the choice was mostly deliberate: "Of course, the focus of the piece has always been for me to bring men and women together, not to drive them farther apart. So the piece is, I think, a very true look at those relationships, but it's not "Your spouse is a louse' or anything like that. ... It's more about the things that draw (men) to women, that keep them coming back for more."

And when she allowed the men in videotaped interviews freedom to be dismissive or critical of women, "that's just not anywhere they were going. And maybe that is something that people will realize more, that men aren't out there focusing on how stupid and uncontrollable and overemotional women are. "I think they're trying to understand the women in their lives."

High Time for Weilerstein. If all you know about cello is Yo-Yo Ma, you might want to expand your horizons by seeing Alisa Weilerstein play with The Florida Orchestra next weekend. Weilerstein, who was featured in the New York Times Arts and Leisure section earlier this year, is 18 years old, and a student at Columbia University in New York.

Weilerstein's diary must look pretty interesting: She first played Carnegie Hall at age 15, and recently made her Paris recital debut at the Louvre. This season she has 40 American and European concert dates; and tours of Australia and Japan are coming this summer. In the Tampa Bay area, she'll be playing the same piece that she performed when she debuted, at age 13, with the Cleveland Orchestra: Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme.

The cello, she says, has "an incredible capability for pathos and depth." Find out what she means when she plays with The Florida Orchestra on May 18 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, on May 19 at the Mahaffey Theater, and on May 20 at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Tickets are $20-$38. Call 813-286-2403.

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