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Womb with a view: Kristen Ace in Baby, Oh Baby.

Growing Pains
By Kathy Ceceri

Baby, Oh Baby
By Kristin Ace
Main Street Stage, North Adams, Mass., through June 5

I was once asked to write a story for a parenting magazine contrasting the deliveries of my two children. The editor sent it back to me for revisions because it contained too many details.

“Nobody wants to hear about other people’s birth stories,” the young, and presumably childless, woman sniffed.

The fact is, as any parent can tell you, that people love to trade delivery-room horror stories, and the bloodier, the better. Yet aside from the standard sitcom oh-my-god-the-baby’s-coming-in-the-living room/taxi/elevator scenario, the most dramatic moment in a woman’s life is rarely given the kind of consideration accorded, say, a young man’s first experience of war. I’ve always wondered why there are no depictions of the true horror and glory of childbirth as there are of battle. Both, after all, deal with life boiled down to its essence. Both make us ask, “Are we all going to come through this all right?”

That, in effect, is the question actress Kristin Ace asks in the one-woman show Baby, Oh Baby, a 90-minute autobiographical diatribe on how scary and isolating, yet ridiculous and humbling, it can be to bring children into today’s world. Ace breaks new ground in talking about the process of becoming mother to Landon, now 6, and Miranda, 3. Though highly personal—her career goals and the memory of brutal attacks by other kids throughout her teens made her question whether she even wanted children of her own—there is a universality to Ace’s tale that many theatergoers, and not just mothers, will relate to. Baby, Oh Baby may stir up memories that aren’t usually exposed to public view (Ace admits she often stumbled upon taboo subjects when trying to connect with fellow moms), but it is all the more powerful because of that.

Ace gives us her birth story in full color, complete with big needles, condescending labor coach, and a lot more pain than she bargained for (apparently all those screaming sitcom scenes didn’t sink in). Then comes the testing ground of parenthood itself, with colicky baby pitted against cranky toddler and sleep-deprived adult in a three-way contest for most out-of-control. But the most startling discovery she makes is that emotional wounds she thought long healed are still there, spreading into her life in ways she never imagined. Wrenchingly, Ace watches as her fears spill out onto her children, and finds it hard to muster the support she needs. Yet with the help of a loving husband, loyal friends, and the children themselves, Ace manages to turn heartache into triumph over the demons of the past.

If there’s a shortcoming to Baby, Oh Baby, which is still in development in its Main Street production, it’s that we want to know more than Ace is willing to tell us. The frightening high school incidents and her parents’ failure to protect her from them, are barely touched on, though it’s hinted they explain why the coping skills that served her in the working world fail once she hits Mommy & Me. And as one audience member suggested in the “talk back” session afterward, we don’t hear enough of Ace’s “real voice.” Enhanced by flowing gestures and expressive signs, Ace’s storytelling is lively and clear. This is funny, primal stuff, but it feels a bit like watching someone on her best behavior in front of the preschool admissions committee. At Sunday’s matinee, the whole room relaxed when Ace ditched the New Jersey suburban uniform (white oxford shirt, beige chinos) and reappeared in her own funky stretch shirt and jeans for the postshow discussion. It was as if we’d been invited to join her on the nail-polished-stained sofa and compare stretch marks. And frankly, that’s where we’d much rather be.

Another Good One

Play by Play: Answers?!

By Jason James Etter, Israel Horovitz, Allan Knee, Bonan Noone, Lucile Lichtblau, Robert Caisley, Eric Henry Sanders, and Mikhail Horowitz, directed by Tom Coash and Deena Pewtherer

StageWorks/Hudson, through June 5

Spring brings renewal, and few theatrical endeavors are more refreshing than StageWorks/Hudson’s annual Play by Play production of new one-acts. This year’s subtitle, Answers?! (previous installments have worked with colors or body parts), belies the breadth and depth of the offerings. The eight one-acts range from Norman Rockwell-esque banal sentimentality to shuddering pathos, and that’s just in the first two acts. Play by Play: Answers?! offers something for everyone: For theater lovers it’s a soul kiss; for casual theatergoers it brings some things familiar and other things strange; for those who just like to go out and socialize, it will give you something to laugh and talk about.

With a crisp pace yet with exact and pitch perfect performances—from Ivan Joy, a neophyte, to Eileen Schuyler, one of the most experienced and accomplished actors in the region—Play by Play: Answers?! places demands on its cast that they answer well. The highlight of the evening is Schuyler’s performance in Israel Horovitz’s monologue Cat Lady. Horovitz, author of the excellent Lebensraum performed by StageWorks in 2003, crafts a monologue set seemingly on a storm-tossed beach. The Cat Lady (Schuyler) holds shakily onto the set, moving unsteadily to each object on the beach that can support her, calling “here puss, puss, puss,” dazed, her eyes wide, fear, anger, dismay, longing playing across her face. Schuyler’s acting is fluid, a virtuoso turn that is all about character, nothing about the performer’s ego. Schuyler engages the audience. She does not shout “look at me,” but keeps her focus on looking for “puss, puss, puss” as if her soul depended on it. Cat Lady is full of humor as the title character recounts her life to the audience, letting the audience connect the parallels between her life and her missing cat. So deft is Schuyler’s performance that the surprise end is like an inhaled breath that is never released. Cat Lady is reason alone to see Play by Play: Answers?!

Other one-acts offer different pleasures: Film Noir boasts two hysterical performances by Justin Gibbs as the trench- coat-wearing, cliché-spouting Arnold who meets his match in Sandra Blaney’s Vee, an alluring blonde femme fatale. Gibbs and Blaney are as exact in creating their noir caricatures as Schuyler is in creating her haunting Cat Lady, but the difference is in their “puss, puss, puss.”

“She was sloppy with erogenous zones,” Arnold tells the audience, and Blaney creates a Vee who’s all satin, sparkles, and thighs. “I was born on the wrong side of the sunrise” Vee tells Arnold, and you believe her. From clench to clench and cliché to cliché, Gibbs and Blaney held the audience in laughter—tinged with a touch of eroticism. Their series of blackout poses on the blood-red chaise lounge are the theatrical equivalent of the Enzyte commercial.

Mere Vessels also features Gibbs and Blaney as a couple, but the effect and the tone couldn’t be more different, showing the range of Play by Play: Answers?! The final one-act of the show, Mere Vessels is set “behind the scenes at a bible benefit,” where the profane dummy, Shorty (Gibbs), discovers in conversation with the saccharine dummy, Zeb (Blaney), that Shorty’s act isn’t going to play well for the fundamentalist Christian audience. Mere Vessels is cutting satire, funny and thoughtful on many levels, which makes it a worthy closer for Play by Play: Answers?!, the best collection of one-acts StageWorks/Hudson has ever offered.

—James Yeara


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