The Swanby Elizabeth Egloff. Directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Tracy Liz Miller and Joel Ripka (as the Swan); photo: Rick Teller
Jacob H Knoll as Kevin; photo: Rick Teller
". . .looking at this total and complete stranger."
In the best mythology sources Leda hatched Helen of Troy from an egg she got through her association with a swan, actually the God, Zeus, in disguise. In some versions Leda was turned into a goose and it was her own egg that the swan impregnated. In others she was merely the nursemaid, but the swan is a constant in the story. And there is always at least one transformation involving a swan.
Elizabeth Egloff’s play, The Swan, now onstage at the Chester Theatre, turns the legend on its ear and sends it flying over an abyss of Nebraskan proportions. Dora Hand is a nurse who leaves her job to tend to the needs of a large swan that has crashed into her house. Her boyfriend Kevin, a married milkman, tries to prevent her from taking on this task, although he approves of her leaving her job so that he can take care of her. The swan slowly learns the ways and the language of humans and ultimately gets into Dora’s heart, mind and body. He refers to her as a goddess but he treats her with the lackadaisical ways of a God. Dora’s men all leave her, all except Kevin, and the Swan - Bill - is no exception; he finally moves on leaving one more transformation in his manly wake.
"The Swan" is, to say the least, a delight. On stage in Chester, Massachusetts the play moves forward swiftly and leaves the audience breathless with its changes and its miraculous interpretive alterations. The three actors who make up the cast perform absolutely splendidly and give dramatic performances that allow the comedy to come through.
Travis George’s Nebraska sky outside his perfectly discomfiting set sets the perfect tone for each scene as lit by Lara Dubin. Arthur Oliver’s costumes give breadth and depth to the characters, whether totally naked or dressed for a wedding. Sound designer Tom Shread has added to the general vision with his storytelling music and sound effects, from the offstage symphony of wind chimes to the cracking of dawn and a window simultaneously.
Fables, or fairy tales, or perfectly realized concepts of magical realism (a Latin American idea for combining the fantastic and dreamlike elements with utter reality) can make for deadly theater, but in this case it is just the opposite. This play entrances and holds our attention from beginning to end without lapse. Egloff has managed the merge miraculously. It is with no little respect for the director, Daniel Elihu Kramer, that it should be pointed out that nowhere, at any time, does anything in this play seem wrong, or impossible or even zany; Kramer has kept the wonder and enhanced the day-to-day existence of his protagonists simultaneously. He has effected a perfect marriage of the possibles.
Nowhere is his handiwork better seen than in the physical realizations that each of the actors bring to the stage. Jacob H Knoll as the milkman with the constant erection swings his guns and his bottles of milk with equal resonance. Knoll has to play a man who is probably bi-polar and possibly suffers from multiple personality syndrome. Whichever way his character deals with this split in reasonable entity, Knoll is one hundred percent believable. At least twice in this play he enters, starts his scene, exits, and enters again with a different face and a different posture and a differed, altered attitude on the subject. In less talented hands this could be boring and confusing, but somehow without a word about the why and wherefore in all this, Knoll just makes it seem reasonable for a man to do such a thing. That’s truly wonderful.
Dora, as played by Tracy Liz Miller, is almost as quixotic but not quite. She is a woman of conviction and she’s ready to do her time, take the sentence and make it into a paragraph. Just like that, transformational at best, Miller moves her version of Dora in and out of personal bests taking her from anger and fear into wonder and love with the simplest gestures and the batting of an eyelash for no reason other to bat it. Her growing obsession with the captive bird who has been transformed, at least in her eyes, into an object of desire is hard to resist. Her final moments in the play, finding herself deserted once again by a man she loves, is transformational, her inner swan emerging in ways that no one would anticipate in such a situation. From A to Z, Miller holds the reins of this play and she holds them tight.
Joel Ripka is the Swan, and I mean "IS" and not just is playing. His slow transition from animal into human is heaven to watch. Ripka is agile and handsome in a strangely romantic fashion, and he moves his character forward and upward with single leaps. The rape of Dora - and it is hard to consider it anything else - happens without her consent and with a struggle and it is Ripka’s romantic ritual lovemaking that allows it to happen in a way that seems natural and inevitable. Ripka is remarkable. He is a bird, and he is a human being and he is a God and he is a brutal and self-supporting animal, all at once and always with a seamless sense of disclosure.
You won’t see a more intriguing take on the psycho-sexual intellect of the species homo that you’ll find in this play and Chester is presenting as fine a production as one could imagine. It’s over one more mountain - with road work - but like the journey of the Swan it is one worth taking.
The Swan plays through July 29 at the Chester Theatre in Chester, MA just over the hill from Becket on route 20. For information and tickets call the box office at 800-595-4TIX or go their website at www.chestertheatre.org.