Easy listening

The words outshine the visuals in Gorilla Theatre's Talking Heads

The monologues are literate, finely crafted and often touching. The acting is excellent, the directing is skillful. And still, Talking Heads comes across as a radio play (actually, it was written for television) that's somehow made it to the stage.

Maybe the set at Gorilla Theatre is the culprit: It hardly exists, and the few emblematic, mismatched pieces of furniture don't work very well in whisking us away from our workaday Tampa into the England of author Alan Bennett. Or maybe the problem is the backdrop of festive draperies that seems to belong to some other, more splendid drama — certainly not to this closely-observed chronicle of crushed lives, lowered hopes, peevish and embittered spirits.

Even on stage, Talking Heads is more aural than visual; you have to listen closely or you'll miss Bennett's subtleties, ironies, understatements. These scenes are all about the text, and the voices that convey it. One could focus a lot more sharply if there weren't faces and bodies to distract.

Still, the performers do fine work. The evening starts with Elizabeth Fendrick as Susan, an Anglican vicar's wife. Her story is one of boredom, dissatisfaction with her husband, with sex, with churchgoing and, not least, with flower arranging. She's also an alcoholic, who one day finishes off the communion wine, replacing it with cough syrup when her stunned husband notices.

But things change when Susan meets an Indian grocer into whose shop she's gone for more drink. He makes a pass at her, she responds and begins a sexual liaison that for the first time in her life shows her "what all the fuss is about." She's so taken with her Asian lover, she even allows him to persuade her to stop drinking.

Fendrick plays this difficult role with an affecting reticence. In her hands, Susan is so defeated by life she can hardly bring herself to raise her voice. Sad-eyed, ironic, used to the idea that life is a joke and she's the target, Fendrick's Susan only comes alive when she's describing her Mr. Ramish, who's "beautiful, ... 26, with wonderful legs." But even these memories can't redeem her from the pale monotony of her middle age. This is a woman condemned to blandness.

In the next monologue, Bridget Bean is notably more chipper. But her story's not upbeat: It's about a woman whose neighbor murders her husband after years of being subjected to his sadistic sexual exercises. Bean's character, Rosemary, changes as the story unfolds — she begins to suspect that her husband was a spectator at some of the S&M, and she draws nearer and nearer to the murderer, even after her conviction.

Again, the acting here is excellent: Bean's Rosemary is a shallow but well-meaning woman, too timid to confront her husband with her suspicions and not the least bit aware of why she feels so close to her convict/former neighbor. Chattering nervously, mixing her confessions with gardening lore, Bean shows us just what it means to have a six-foot-thick wall between the conscious and subconscious. Bennett's script here could benefit students of psychology.

And then there's Rosemary Orlando as Marjory. Thanks to Orlando's unforgettably acidic performance, this monologue is the high point of the evening and the best argument for seeing, and not just hearing, Bennett's drama.

Marjory is the wife of a cattle slaughterer who's accused of murdering several young women. As Orlando plays her, she's also a sour, desiccated, life-despising drag who finds everyone she encounters — from police to reporters to her husband's noisy dog — equally despicable.

When her husband's on trial, Marjory makes a discovery that could hugely affect the case. But this woman's soul is so disfigured, and the contract she's made with life is so perverse, one can't guess what action, if any, she'll take. Only one thing is certain: This glum, hateful character won't allow anything to hurt her; she's been hurt too many times, and has shields where there used to be skin.

And speaking of skin, Jessica Alexander as Lesley in the fourth and final monologue makes a career out of sharing it. She shares her skin with movie audiences, with directors, with animal handlers, and with just about anyone with enough initiative to invite her into bed.

Lesley's monologue is the only truly comic one of the evening, and Alexander is at her best in rendering the blissful ignorance of a minor thespian. Most of her story is about making a film for the German video market (it might also be released in Turkey), and about the umpteen indignities that she experiences — while hardly noticing.

If Bean's Rosemary sadly fails to make contact with her own life, Alexander's Lesley is just as divided from herself — and is therefore having a wonderful time. It's a pleasure to find Bennett acknowledging that sometimes a failure of vision is what keeps us from despair. Lesley thinks she's a star; and so, to the one for whom it matters the most, she is.

As for the rest of us near-sighted spectators, we leave Talking Heads not quite sure why we had to see, and not just hear, the script. This is a play about words, what they point out and what they leave out, and even Nancy Cole's likable direction can't make the visuals matter.

Now I'm curious to read further — there are several more monologues, in two separate volumes — and for once I don't think I'll miss the live stage. After all, these are almost short stories in the first person. Curled up on my sofa, I can linger on the best passages, meditate on the unsaid, reread what's not clear.

Talking Heads is literature as much as it is theater. And literature is best performed in the imagination.

Shepard at the Silver Meteor. The first two-thirds of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love is eminently forgettable, and not nearly on a par with this important playwright's best work. But the last third, incorporating some long, mesmerizing speeches, is riveting, breathtaking, as good as anything in Buried Child.

In the Hat Trick Theatre production at Ybor City's Silver Meteor Gallery, actor Stephen Fisher owns the stage as urban cowboy Eddie, in love with his half-sister May (Kimberly Mullins), and observed throughout the play by a mysterious Old Man (Greg Morgan). Monica Steele's direction is solid, though the set is crude and sound and light effects lacking.

Still, the last 20 minutes of the play have a mythical grandeur that most other playwrights don't dare aspire to. And it's about time someone produced a Shepard play that isn't True West.

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