A Near Myth

Earthly limitations prevent The Swan from taking flight.

In writing The Swan, a play about a swan who turns into a man, Elizabeth Egloff has mined fertile mythic territory. Zeus, of course, had a habit of taking on animal form when he was set on a sexual conquest. He became a swan in order -- famously -- to rape Leda, fathering the beautiful Helen and indirectly causing the Trojan War. One of Hans Christian Andersen's loveliest fairy tales concerns eleven princes turned into wild swans by a wicked stepmother, and their sister's efforts to save them. The heads of dance aficionados are filled with visions of Swan Lake's swan-women (danced in some modern productions by men). Poets have always been intrigued by the swan's beauty and mystery, too, and in Elizabethan literature, the haunting myth persisted that a swan will sing once, and once only, during its lifetime: in the moments preceding death -- hence the term "swan song."

HorseChart Theatre Company's production begins with a woman drowsing on a shabby sofa in a cluttered room. There's an odd humming sound in the air. Something crashes against her window. Terrified, she picks up a flashlight and goes outside to investigate. She finds a wounded swan, brings it inside, places it in a basket. It appears to be dead. But then a man rises from the basket's rumpled blanket (he should be naked, but HorseChart has actor Brett Aune wear modest briefs) -- or sort of a man. There's an otherworldliness clinging to this creature, who makes odd honking, moaning sounds, flaps frantically round the room, menaces the woman and then accepts food from her but can't figure out how to eat it, staring in panicked wonder at his own hands.

The woman is Dora, played by Kathryn Gray. She's weary and middle-aged, the survivor of several bad relationships -- one husband left her, another shot himself. Men, she observes at one point, are inexplicable beings who are radared to earth from space. Dora is having an ongoing affair with Kevin, the married milkman (Donald P. Ryan). He's willing to leave his wife and daughter for her, but she won't make the commitment. When he discovers the swan-man in Dora's home, Kevin is puzzled and somewhat hostile. As the swan becomes more and more manlike and more and more devoted to Dora, Kevin becomes outright bellicose.

Chart Theatre's The Swan.
Chart Theatre's The Swan.
Chart Theatre's The Swan.
Chart Theatre's The Swan.

The play exists on two levels: On one, it's a quasi-realistic story of two people trying to sustain a relationship. Director Philip Russell gives full weight to this aspect. The set is shabby, the costumes well worn, Gray and Ryan's performances naturalistic. But the omnipresence of the swan undermines realism, and the couple's mundane life together keeps cracking apart. Because there's something else operating in this script -- a powerful undertow that has to do with the terrifying, atavistic nature of love and the way we're all trapped in the mediocrity of everyday life. At heart, The Swan is a huge and desperate cry of longing, a beating of wings against a stifling reality.

Sometimes Egloff's hand is expert, even magical, as when the swan metamorphoses into a suave Latin dancer. But there are times when the script seems just plain muddled. There are all sorts of small inconsistencies that add nothing but distraction. What kind of therapist would agree to see Kevin and Dora at 5:30 in the morning, even to accommodate Kevin's hours? How can a man possibly support two women and a child on a milkman's salary? Why does Dora's friend Lilian keep calling and calling throughout one scene and then never call again? Why does Kevin want to phone the police at the end, when he's trying to hustle Dora out the door? Even an absurdist or surreal work, it seems to me, should stay true to its premise. When Kafka's Gregor Samsa awakens to find himself a cockroach in The Metamorphosis, for instance, the outrageous main premise is supported by a host of consistent and mundane details. So while it's fine for the swan's scenes to be startling, form-breaking and inexplicable, it seems to me that Egloff should also honor her own counterbalancing realism.

It is the swan -- both in Egloff's conception and in Aune's performance -- who dominates and enlivens this production. He's fascinating to watch. He chugs a beer and you see his surprise, sense the progress of the gassy bubbles down that long, long throat. He veers back and forth between bestiality and sad humanity. He agonizes over the most basic ideas of identity: "I am a bird...I am a man...Dora's a bird." One of the play's oddest and most moving scenes occurs while he crouches over a mouse he's killed for Dora (Kevin's preparing to pick it up with a paper towel) and struggles for language: "Lips...red...fire...I would swallow you like a stone."

Unfortunately, the other performances aren't up to the level of Aune's. I can imagine roles for which Gray would be perfect, but she's simply miscast as Dora. She has the working-girl weariness down pat, but communicates nothing of Dora's vulnerability and reluctant tenderness. Her voice is harsh. This is a play about the liberating possibilities of sexual passion, and there's no sexuality in her performance. The role of Kevin is difficult, because the part is inconsistently written. Ryan warms to the character and becomes more animated as the play progresses. Director Philip Russell needs to go more for nuance, and to direct his actors to explore each beat of the action fully. Some of the play's best moments occur in silence -- the swan shuddering in its basket, for example, or Dora, motionless, watching him eat.

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