You may not remember Semele. She was a mortal woman Zeus impregnated and later killed with a lightning bolt. Their child survived — to become Dionysos, god of wine, of theatre, and of all forms of ecstasy. He was known for inviting his women followers into a divine, dangerous madness.
Son of Semele, a local troupe named for their ancient patron, has asked three women to step into the wild — alone — this weekend. These intrepid “daughters of Semele” do so, and each one finds some fine and fearful things.
The first is Melissa R. Randel, in The Women of “The Hat”. On a black stage are a clothes rack (occupied), a wingback chair (empty), and a small bandbox table and stool. Out strides a dancer in rehearsal tights, who grabs a top hat from the rack and narrates us through the opening few moves of Chorus Line.
Before her Broadway memories can unwind, she shifts costume and becomes — her own mother. A Southern girl who was given dance lessons to teach her posture, but fell in love with the art. Who began her career dancing to a hotel jazz band, but fell in love with the trombone player.
Randel moves us steadily through two lives shaped around a missing man. Mother forms hers around his retreat from marriage into music, drinking and at last illness; daughter’s is formed by his distance, then his death. Randel creates quiet alarm in us as she sips from smaller and smaller teacups, and shocks us when each woman tries to dance a duet with the empty chair.
The trip through the past leads to a triumph both lives have earned, as the daughter flings herself joyfully into space in Chorus Line‘s choreography. Elegant and poignant, Randel’s piece — edited deftly from a two-hander to this more powerful solo — takes us deep into the life of passion found, fettered and finally freed.
In You’re Not Nothing, Abby Schachner brings us a woman who lives entirely, urgently in the present. She bursts into a bright-lit space that’s decked out like a kindergarten room, singing of self-esteem. She pops a few math questions, rewarding right answers with a gold star (we must pass it about: there’s only one). Then she anxiously shares songs and poems she’s made to teach children the alphabet.
They betray a rather sardonic mind, a bit preoccupied with sex, violence and death. And when her slips in composure cause us to avert our eyes, we notice what we may have overlooked — the bright yellow border of her space is police caution tape.
By the time we’re through the alphabet, she’s pretty well unraveled. She shows us her stuffed sleepy toys, a giant question mark and an even larger cigarette (!), then succumbs, curling up with them on the floor and drifting off.
Schachner creates a swift, amusing and unnerving sketch — not quite a portrait. With no name, back story or relationships, this character feels so unrooted that I wonder if she’s unfinished. (The festival’s for developing works, after all, not completing them.) At the same time, I’m reminded of mental patients I’ve known. And I wonder — as with them — how much her anxious instability has infected me.
The scene changes again. A long table, a single chair facing us, a microphone, and a light box illuminating the back wall. It calls to mind a witness table at a hearing … or a home recording studio? Susan Tierney enters and drapes herself across the chair and table.
Without props or costume changes, only an occasional change of posture, she unfolds Susan Tierney. The story of another dancer,
who also lost her father early — and a life propelled by a voracious hunger for experience (another father-shaped hole?)
Calmly, she tells a picaresque tale of an artist’s life. Struggling to conquer New York, being emotionally shattered by her mentor’s suicide, being physically wrecked in a sky-diving accident, drifting downtown and downscale from ballerina to lap dancer, living with the wrong lovers, at last choking on smoke while people fall from the nearby Twin Towers. And finding a quiet epiphany.
With her pale skin and close-cropped pale hair, Tierney almost disappears into the background, then leaps forward to reconnect with sudden intensity. Her humor, wryly accepting circumstances (and her own lapses of judgment), holds us engaged. Her frank courage keeps us a little in awe. At the end, we realize we’ve been mesmerized by a master storyteller.
This is the third — and final — weekend of the 1st Annual Solo Creation Festival. The solo explorations these three women share will not tear you apart as Dionysos’ ancient devotees did, but they will enrich your sense of what theatre can be, and what a life is.
Solo Creation Festival, curated by Artistic Director Matthew McCray and Festival Coordinator Ashley Steed.
Presented at Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., LA 90004.
Friday and Saturday at 8:00, Sunday at 5:00.