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BWW Reviews: UMBC Displays Its 'GRRL Parts'

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County provides an adventurous, interesting theater program, tending towards the edgy and experimental, toward theater pieces more than plays. For four seasons now as a part of its program it has staged evenings of short pieces, some commissioned from distinguished contemporary playwrights, some the product of a competition, selected to provide a platform for college-age actresses. The thinking has been that actresses of this age are underemployed, as are playwrights who would tell young women's stories. Hitherto, the evenings have been known as "In 10," but now the program is now rechristened under the deliberately provocative name of "GRRL Parts."

This year's program, playing this week only, features three entertaining short plays with only one male role among them. They have in common a tendency toward the fantastic, and a lack of interest in or regard for heterosexual lives and loves.

Phyllis Nagy's piece The One, The Other seems initially the most realistic in presentation, although interspersed with out-of-context elevator sound effects whose meaning, when finally made clear, precipitates a plot development that simply could not occur in real life. We are left with the sense that the story, the tale of the breakup of a lesbian couple contrapuntally presented by the one and then the other, has devolved into a mere metaphor. But since by that point the audience is invested in the lives and the particulars of the two lovers (the fact that they like to check out real estate investments together, the detail that one feels like making apple cobbler, the affair on the side the other is conducting), the ending feels a bit like a cheat. A realistically-presented breakup between three-dimensional characters should, one feels, come to a realistic conclusion. This is no discredit to actresses Ellen Line and Samantha Nelson, who perhaps bring more life to their roles than the playwright intended or could support.

Weathertician, by Gregory L. Farber, starts from a science fiction premise: we have learned to control the weather, and we collectively vote each morning to choose the climate du jour. This premise sets up a conflict between Donna, paid spokesperson of the let-it-rain-today lobby (one can roughly equate them with ecologists and good-government types), and Caroline, flack of the let's-have-another-pleasant-day lobby (whose aversion to rain threatens the functioning of those ecologies and economies - all of them - that depend on the availability of water). Each morning each character appears on TV to urge the electorate to cast ballots for her favored brand of day. Since Caroline is gorgeous (actress Louise Schlegel reminds one of Katherine Heigl) and Donna is not, and since it is always easier to have a pleasant day than to put up with rain, and since compromise proves impossible, it seems clear that in the short run at least the benighted voters will go with Donna and disaster. The tragedy of The Commons was never more amusingly dramatized. Megan Mahon as Donna, the voice crying in the impending wilderness, has some good moments, but the play belongs to Schlegel, whose chilling self-possession at the end combines with a frightening lack of reflection: the ultimate blonde joke, perfectly told.

A semi-staged performance of Naomi Iizuka's The Girl I Used To Know winds up the evening. Loosely based on the Roman myth of Minerva and Arachne, Iizuka takes the tale places Ovid never dreamed of. Here Minerva is a black "post-sexual" (read lesbian) college freshman with wiccan powers and a funky wardrobe of unknown ethnicity. Arachne has become Jai, her ditsy privilegEd White roommate. At first, as the two become lovers, Jai seems to be assimiliating the greater sophistication, authenticity and cosmic awareness Minerva tries to provide Jai. But then Minerva impetuously uses her magic powers to bless Jai with all Jai might desire. This proves a bad idea, a casting of pearls before swine. Jai reverts instantly to a shallow materialism, and, even worse, goes back to being het - and heterosexuality, as depicted here, seems close to brain-death. When Ovid told the tale, Arachne's failing was a lack of diplomacy in addressing the gods, but at least she was Minerva's equal as a weaver; here Jai is completely out of her league when competing with Minerva. Iizuka and Ovid inflict the same punishment upon Arachne/Jai, however: metamorphosis into - well, if you don't know, you'll have to go and see.

As a script, this is the least successful of the three plays, and not only because of the facile condescension towards straight people. One never sees what Minerva saw in Jai to begin with, and the punishment Minerva inflicts upon Jai for her apostasy seems petty and vindictive rather than what Iizuka probably meant it to be: the equalization of spiritual forces, cosmic justice. As an acting exercise, however, this is as good as the rest of the evening. Sydney Kleinberg makes a marvellous ditz, and Samrawit Belai is quite good in the harder role of the inscrutable shaman freshman.

Taken together, this year's edition of "GRRL Parts" is a provocative and varied evening of theater, and worthy of the fascinating departmental program that has produced it.

UMBC Theatre, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Baltimore, MD 21250. Thursday, March 4 through Saturday, March 6 at 8:00 p.m., Sunday, March 7, at 4:00 p.m. Tickets $10 general admission, $5 students and seniors. Adult language, some sexual situations, some sexual content.

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