WISH conceived and directed by Allyson McMackon, with Hume Baugh, Patrick Conner, Emily Hurson, Brooke Johnson, Noah Kenneally, Melinda Little, Mike McPhaden and Lucy Rupert. Presented by Theatre Rusticle at Dancemakers (Case Goods Building, 55 Mill). Opens Friday (November 4) and runs to November 13, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. $15-$18, Sunday pwyc. 416-538 -6964 ext 1. Rating: NNNNN
The cleverest, wittiest people in a Restoration comedy like William Congreve's The Way Of The World are at the top of society's hierarchy. So it seems bizarre that I'm watching a rehearsal of the Congreve-inspired Wish in which corseted performers dance in a manic conga line to a hot Latin beat. Director/adapter Allyson McMackon calls out to them, "Lots of energy, lots of Liza Minnelli."
Turns out the Congreve is just a springboard for McMackon's show, which moves the spotlight from the lovers of the original to an older woman, in the original called Lady Wishfort. This new piece of movement-based theatre looks at how we go about trying to satisfy our desires - especially love and sex - and what happens when we're thwarted.
McMackon explodes the original play, creating dozens of short scenes that use the original words but add a physical component that helps define the characters. The performance style could be intimidating for actors who are used to working with text, but not in this case.
"I don't have to have a dancer's body or look 'beautiful' as I move," says Brooke Johnson, who plays Wish. "The style allows us actors to express something in a different way, to make bold choices, because the presentation isn't realistic."
"It can be intimidating," adds Hume Baugh, who plays Wish's confidant Foible, a female role in Congreve. "But I've worked with Allyson before. I know that I don't have to move like a dancer but can be my own clumsy self. The movement work adds something to our palette to draw upon."
Congreve's convoluted narrative of plots and counterplots, fed by greed, sex and jealousy, would seem at first to be a strange one to adapt to physical theatre, but the two actors find the story's been made clearer, more direct, by the addition of movement.
"The original has characters getting by on their wit and their status, while they try to cover up their actions as much as they can," notes Johnson, whose work includes Alice's Affair and Dangerous Offender.
"But here we're looking at them as human beings trying to fit into society. There's more of a concern for the human heart and how people are often insensitive to the effects of their actions on others."
That's especially true for Wish, who in Congreve is a secondary figure and one of derision because of the play she makes for a younger man.
"She's a bitter old woman, punished for her desire," offers Baugh. "But we see the story from her viewpoint, how she acts and how she's acted upon."
"In part, it's about what happens to an older woman in our society," nods Johnson. "She has lots of younger women around her who tend to get the attention of the male characters.
"The piece implicitly asks how a woman can get attention when she's beyond a certain age, even to get people to see that she's there. Wish does it by painting her face and trying to maintain a certain status.
"But I keep hearing Congreve's line in which Wish calls herself a receptacle. I think she's become a trash bin for people's cruelty."
Ironically - and happily - the gender switch of Baugh's character from female to male is presented as a given. Foible's married in the Congreve, and he is here, as well, to another man.
"I like working with that switch," admits Baugh, who's appeared in And One Night It Snowed, Smoke and Much Ado About Nothing. "Foible is a man who expresses himself through femininity; it's part of his identity. And because marriage is part of the plot, there's no big deal about the fact that these two guys are wed.
"His relationship with Wish is comparable to the one I imagine between Craig Russell, before he became famous, and Mae West, when he moved to California and worked as her personal assistant. It's a relationship of caring, but there's an ambiguity there, too."
"And it's very intimate," continues Johnson, "since Foible sees Wish in her corset and making up her face, sees her as she really is. That's huge, and there has to be a lot of love involved."
"I grew up with a number of sisters as well as my mother," smiles Baugh. "Enjoying that privilege isn't hard for me. In fact, it makes a lot of sense."