Theme and Variations

You shouldn't judge a book by its cover, and you also shouldn't judge theater by its artwork. But judging by the cover of its program, Woman Seeking...'s production of The Birds and the Bees or the Birds and the Birds promises to be extremely provocative. A naked woman twists her body in extension on the floor; with elbows on the ground, she stares downward in a posture that could indicate a state of arousal, fatigue, despair, or meditation. Her body glistens with a metallic sweat, and the overall effect suggests sex, passion, and conflict. Unfortunately, this collection of nine short plays fails to deliver, with a few exceptions, on its provocative promise. (One of the nine, "Figure of a Father," had its opening postponed until next week.) Grouped loosely around the topic of sex—its repercussions, incarnations, and resulting relationships—The Birds and the Bees is a mixed bag. A lack of satisfying conflict deflates most of the scripts, which often rely on overly simplistic dialogue and relationships. Still, Women Seeking... has assembled a richly talented ensemble and production team that transforms rather pallid material into an enjoyable production.

Rich Orloff's "Last-Minute Adjustments" energetically kicks off the evening, channeling Christopher Durang in a slightly absurdist take on the assembling of a baby (played by an adult man) before he enters the world. Three technicians move through a checklist of materials to ascertain that the baby is ready to be born. When they decide to add a soul, however, the baby balks, because a soul will make him both capable of love and vulnerable to pain. Orloff leaves us wondering, Is the pain worth the love?

"The Scent of Coconuts Had Haunted Her for Days" follows, and Tara Meddaugh's finely wrought script is one of the production's highlights. A quiet meditation on the life of young newlyweds, the short piece examines the fear, dissonance, and lack of communication that can plague a marriage. A woman's fear of having a baby poignantly inverts as she finds herself nurturing a backyard weed garden. Kel Haney's delicate direction moves the action along seamlessly while emphasizing the rich subtext, and Jeff Wise and Nicole Winston are superb as they deliver compelling, complex performances.

Barb Wolfe's "Chef Salad" and Laurie Marvald's "The Phone Call" both focus on mother-daughter relationships. In the first, a daughter reprimands her late-blooming mother for being so publicly outspoken about her sexuality. Christine Mosere and Wynne Anders find the humor in their characters (and look remarkably alike), but their dialogue lacks a clear, dramatic through line. "The Phone Call" is essentially a commercial for the orgasm how-to classes of Dr. Betsy Dodson (who will be giving, perhaps not coincidentally, post-show talkbacks Jan. 11 and 18). The play shamelessly promotes Dodson as the daughter frankly tells her mother about her experiences in Dodson's class.

The next three pieces are largely unremarkable, laden with platitudes and bogged down by exposition as two young girls explore a nascent lesbian relationship ("Breathe"); two cats figure out how to exploit a dog for their own sexual pleasure while the owners are away ("Felicity"); and a young, pregnant girl confides in an elderly high school custodian ("One More Knot").

It's not until the final piece, artistic director Mosere's "Femme," that the production seems to ground itself. The longest play of the evening, "Femme" innovatively explores a young girl's quest to make sense of a kiss she receives from a woman. Through sketches, songs, and confessional dialogue, five actresses function as a Greek chorus of sorts, as the girl struggles to determine her own sexual identity—"who I am versus who I should be." Here, at last, we have the passion promised by the program cover: "Femme" is fiery, provocative, and alive, making the other plays appear relatively bland by comparison.

Although The Birds and the Bees provides uneven entertainment, Woman Seeking... is nonetheless a production company to keep your eye on. As they work to cast a variety of actors (regardless of age or physical type) in their shows, they are pioneering in a healthy direction. But while we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, we almost always do. The Birds and the Bees may not always live up to its promise, but Woman Seeking... will undoubtedly find creative ways to work toward and challenge the ambitious expectations it sets for itself.

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