I don't know how to assess John Orlock's Indulgences in the Louisville Harem, currently playing at Germinal Stage Denver, because I don't begin to understand it. Sometimes when you see a play that makes no literal sense, you still feel caught up in it, still find some recognizable emotional or philosophical drive there. I've read reviews of Indulgences that evoke Tom Stoppard and Tennessee Williams, but the comparison I thought of as I watched was Eugene Ionesco. Ionesco's characters speak complete nonsense, but his images and absurdities evoke potent ideas. In The Lesson, for instance, a bright young student is harried to death -- literally -- by a bullying professor. Like Indulgences, The Lesson is about language and its relationship to reality. But it's also about power and the abuse of power. Although there are evocative moments in Orlock's play, and interesting visual metaphors, I couldn't find anything there to hang my hat on. Every time I thought I'd discovered a thread that would help unravel the meaning, it dissolved in my hands.
Okay, the plot is a bit Tennessee Williams-ish, if only because it's impossible to see a Southern spinster of a certain age on stage, occupying a genteelly decaying household, without thinking of Williams. There are two such women inIndulgences, sisters named Florence and Viola. Both are full of inchoate yearnings that find expression in flowery turns of phrase, non sequiturs, mutual reproach, accounts of grotesque dreams and Viola's periodic bouts of willfulness. Between them, the sisters create a running stream of words. Sometimes I'd isolate a phrase and think, "Oh, that's interesting, that's significant or beautiful," but then the flow would continue, and the phrase would sink under the general prattle.
Indulgences?owes something to the durable literary conceit of the double -- expressed in everything from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to television shows about good and evil twins. You can interpret these dualistic characters in ethical, psychological or philosophical terms; whatever they are, they intrigue us.Indulgences has two sets of two: the sisters and their suitors. And Viola informs us that she has another sister, who's identical to herself and also named Viola. I'm sure Orlock is getting at something about personality being constructed by speech, words shaping reality, all the usual stuff. But too often these notions are used to defend work that's not much more than a game the author is playing with himself, self-indulgent and intended to tease and baffle rather than enlighten. DidIndulgences come to be just because the word "mesmerist" caught Orlock's attention and he decided to mess with it?
Florence and Viola receive a catalogue listing eligible gentlemen and argue about whether to use it. Pretty soon, two top-hatted men from the International Institute of Science and Populism turn up. They are Amos N. Robbilet, a mesmerist who is unable to speak, and Winfield Davis, who serves as Robbilet's voice, wooing for him like Cyrano, though occasionally also speaking for himself. The two are obviously con men (at least that's the trope being worked here), but they're more strange than menacing. Sometimes -- and this is the play's saving grace -- they're outrageously funny, as when Robbilet mesmerizes Davis into believing he's a chicken, all the while using Davis's own voice to do it.
In fact, the best moments of the Germinal production belong to Winfield Davis. I'm not sure if this is because Davis's speeches are better written than the rest of the play or because Terry Burnsed brings a real sense of humanity to the role. At one point, Davis talks about a love affair with someone else's wife, who cried to him, "Speak to me." He describes how he struggled to find and release the words she needed, and then the consequences when he did, in a genuinely mesmerizing monologue.
Perhaps the rest of the play would have been fascinating, too, if Lori Hansen as Florence and Theresa Reid as Viola had given the sisters' words the same level of feeling that Burnsed brought to his. Every now and then, Reid did precisely this, and it felt as if the river of babble had stilled its rush momentarily and you could see the clarity of the water, the white stones beneath and the shadows of fish. I'd like to have seen Reid give us more such moments, and also explore Viola's brattiness further.
Hansen's background is in dance, and she has a presentational acting style that doesn't allow for empathy with the character. She holds the stage well, and she's often very funny. But beneath all the graceful posing and hocus-pocus, Florence is a trapped and lonely soul, a woman searching for a way out, and Hansen just doesn't show us this. Ed Baierlein's direction is deliberately stylized, but that shouldn't preclude all emotion.
There's also a trick I've seen employed fairly often at Germinal: The cast seizes on a particular word in the script and gives it a peculiar focus every time it comes up. Florence and Viola refer frequently to their uncle, or, as they pronounce it, "onkel" -- always with a little grimace and a meaningful glance toward the audience. I've seen this tactic work well on occasion, but here it adds nothing.
Stephen R. Kramer does a nice job as the silent Robbilet, and I liked the cozy living room set and Sally Diamond's pretty, delicate costumes.
I'm not sorry I saw Indulgences. Images of the Victorian sisters and their enigmatic gentlemen have remained with me; there's also something resonant about the script's phantasmagoric murk with its overlay of filigree. Maybe there's nothing wrong with spending an hour or two feeling that you're trembling at the edge of discovery -- even if that discovery never comes.
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