So Much Bitchy Yammering

Photo courtesy Grand
Central TheatreCanadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard's 1994 drama, The Orphan Muses, touches upon some oh-so-familiar dysfunctional family territory. What makes his take different is that instead of sons struggling to make peace with Dad, Bouchard's protagonists struggle with momma issues. Seems Mom pulled an Ibsen and walked out on her family years before the story begins. Stunted by the loss, her now-grown children deny or face the issue in variously dysfunctional ways. Only son drapes himself in his mother's old clothing, painting her as a romantic carried away by love. Oldest daughter imitates mother, takes lovers, bosses everyone about and is working herself to death covering her sibling's debts. Middle sister goes the opposite route: a lesbian, she's joined the military and lives far away from the family, wishing to have nothing to do with them. The youngest sister, coddled as the baby, acts like a perpetually pouty, demanding adolescent. No surprise here that putting these four people in the same room is a recipe for emotional/psychological meltdown—sparked by news that Mom is coming for a visit on Easter Sunday.

Director Stephen K. Wagner knows how to use silence to good effect and has a nice flair for the visual. Starting the show with the actors in doll-like white masks playing keep-away with bits and pieces of their mother's clothing and accompanied by Ravel's Bolero—music closely associated with sex—is about as lovely a stage metaphor as I think I've ever seen. It also reveals a clear understanding of the way relationships with our parents influence and color everything about us, including our sexuality. It's a damn shame that as soon as the acting starts, that striking first image is pretty much it for the evening.

Student actor inexperience with material this dense is partly to blame, but the biggest misstep is that the characters in the play are older than the actors playing them onstage, and the disparity between the two is very quickly apparent. The ensuing hostility, heavy on exposition, demands the gravity that older actors—even those only a few years older—might have brought to it. Without that sense of life lived and lost, the dialogue ends up sounding like so much bitchy yammering, instead of the words of heartbroken, world-weary adults.


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