By John Quinn
Before Salome danced for the head of the Baptist, it seems the goddess Ishtar achieved entrance to the Underworld by dancing at each of the seven gates of Hell. Dropping a veil each time, she entered nude. “Beautiful woman, beautiful dance, hellish place,” as The Woman puts it. It’s a striking association for “The Dance of the Seven Veils,” The New Theatre Project’s latest example of pushing the envelope. But it is not bared bodies here – it is bared souls.
This is not a conventional play. Charles L. Mee, Obie Award-winning playwright, assembled a narrative called “Salome,” a lyrical piece on a sober subject – the sex trade. Borrowing liberally from classic poets and writers, he detailed the up and downs of selling sex through monologues by women in the business. But that’s not the play you’ll see at the Pot & Box in Ann Arbor. Mee has an unusual idea: There’s no such thing as an original play. Like the Evangelist borrowing the Ishtar story to illustrate the decadence of Herod’s court, playwrights merely rework older stories. I have trouble accepting that notion. It’s been my experience that the fresh touch of an artist creates something new and unique – “original” – from even the most derivative material. But now I’m arguing semantics.
The up side of Mee’s approach is his generosity with his talents. His plays are published on the Internet, and he encourages other artists to recreate the material into something original – ahem, “different and new.” Thus local playwright Amada Lyn Jungquist has chucked the narrative structure of “Salome” in favor of the actual accounts of sex workers derived from blogs, social networking sites and books. Three women, Amanda Lyn Jungquist, Maria Thomas and Linda Rabin, combine talents and become the archetypical Woman.
If the origin, structure and theme of this project are unconventional, so is its production. The Pot & Box is the tiniest performance space I’ve encountered. It’s barely the size of a living room, and in defiance of traditional “black box” theater, it’s painted white. Boasting maybe two right angles, it’s downright skewy. The audience rings a playing space; we’re so close we’re as well lit as the actors. In this most intimate setting, the emotional turmoil of the characters washes over you like a tide.
In keeping with the dance theme, a pole center stage is the only set piece. It is an anchor to each of the three characters.
There’s the would-be ballet dancer at the barre, into “the business” for the income but finding she loves the attention. Amanda Lyn Jungquist gives us a low-keyed introduction to a fragile character. She is constantly in retreat, uncomfortable with her surging memories; we find ourselves pursuing her.
Maria Thomas brings us a more experienced worker, one who finds names don’t matter. Her brash exterior hides an inner conflict her behavior can’t hide. Throughout her monologue, she tugs down her very short dress, yet occasionally flips it up for a sassy show of leg. It is such a natural move I don’t know if it’s conscious or not. I do know it’s fine character study.
The third voice is that of a retired striptease artist, and Linda Rabin Hammell portrays a woman finally at peace with herself. Her yoga-inspired dance is as soothing as the rustic retreat she tells us about. But her character also delivers one of the grim splashes of reality in the performance. She picks up a ukulele and begins hummin’ and strummin’ softly. A chill ran through me when I recognized the blues classic, “The House of the Rising Sun,” the remorseful cry of a brothel-bound, syphilitic waif. It was a sobering reminder of the realities of “the oldest profession.”
Credit Keith Paul Medelis (director), Ben Stange (bringer of movement) and an outstanding cast for a bit of stage magic. They came, they worked, then directors and actors slipped away and left only Character behind to engage the audience. “The Dance of the Seven Veils” is not a play for everybody. The material is provocative and is better viewed by an audience willing to accept the challenges here offered. Listen to its questions. For finding the answers, “Veils” is only a start, but a fine start it is.
Charles L. Mee’s works can be found on his Web site: http://www.panix.com/userdirs/meejr/indexf.html
‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’
The New Theatre Project at Pot & Box, 220 Felch St., Ann Arbor. Friday-Monday through Feb. 28. $10-$15. 734-645-9776. http://www.thenewtheatreproject.org