It all starts with a sociological questionnaire. Well, actually it all started as part of a Paula Vogel workshop for Yale School of Drama M.F.A. playwright Dorothy Fortenberry. Given the theme of the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, with literary and artistic examples provided from the W.B. Yeats poem to other works, Fortenberry addresses the as-seen-on-TV version of female sexuality versus something a bit darker, more perverse, and certainly more funny. Her modern-day Caitlin and the Swan places the rather violent tale into the present amid three college-era gal pals, who have forged ahead into the new territory of adulthood, career, and relationships, while keeping each other as touchstones along the way. The play opens with the friends discussing the dubious success of a former classmate whose sociological study they all received, basically consisting of comparing notes among the young women’s “progress” in life. Caitlin, played by The Management’s talented Marguerite French, is a floundering, somewhat naïve SAT prep tutor living with her boyfriend Doug, an attorney. Her friend Priya, played in an excellent deadpan by Shetal Shah, is a busy resident gynecologist, a lesbian who seems too preoccupied for any relationship beyond a fling. And finally there’s Rachel, hysterically portrayed by Teresa Stephenson, who has fallen in love and started to cheat on her husband with, wait for it... a pig. No, not your typical brute, but the actual four-legged kind, whom she names “Pete.” They “met cute,” on a farm, etc., etc. The ups and downs of her affaire de coeur lead to much drama and heartbreak (as one might imagine), but also seems to incite Caitlin to act in a way that she’s never felt before, as perhaps do Priya’s NSA affairs, including one, she reveals, to do with a certain household feline named Emma. Sure, some excitement may have been missing in her relationship with straight-laced Doug, played by Fortenberry’s fellow Yalie Brian Robert Burns, but it’s while tutoring Bastian, portrayed sweetly by Jake Aron, that her desires alight onto a fixation. But in this askew world, it’s not even for the innocent 18-year-old student, but rather the wild swan that lives in his backyard pond.
Directed by The Management’s co-artistic director Joshua Conkel, who is well versed in expressing the left-of-center mindset (as shown in his own plays ), while rooting it squarely into a familiar pop culture landscape; his vision blends well with Fortenberry’s comedic writing. (You can tell Caitlin’s romantic notions are getting the better of her when she wistfully asks Bastian the swan’s name. He replies, “I call him, swan.”) Here, the female characters are largely unapologetic and bold in their behavior and relationships, and in Rachel’s case even a bit world-wearied, which is a relief to see versus the usual glut of SATC superficiality. The men, on the other hand, seem surprisingly sensitive and communicative. Caitlin’s boyfriend Doug is painfully honest and open about his feelings, instead of the presumed emotionally out-of-touch and/or sulky (or worse), especially when sex is suddenly taken off the table. Caitlin’s student Bastian seems fairly enlightened and understanding for having a strong crush on her and being, well, the hormonally-charged age of 18? (Or maybe this is all me and I’ve been exclusively dating cavemen all these years...)
But another highlight of this production is the dream ballet, fantasy, and live action sequences choreographed imaginatively by Croft Vaughn and starring the gifted dancer Elliott T. Reiland. Reiland wonderfully interprets both the non-speaking Pig, in full costume and with all of the usual misbehaviors (finally, a guy I can recognize!), and the Swan, in a pared-down stylized form, who seems unruffled by Caitlin’s unspeakable desires. How she resolves this adds the shock and true anguish lying at the bottom of Fortenberry’s piece, and while tough, I admire her for taking it all the way.
The movements are evocative, visceral, funny and even frightening, and very well presented. I’m somewhat surprised that not a single feather was used on the Swan costume, which might have been a nice touch, as well as potentially being more suggestive, and certainly not out of place amongst the other toys and props used throughout, which made their appearance courtesy of adult-toy supplier Babeland. (Maybe a quick trip back down to the store on Rivington Street?) But regardless, Reiland communicates it swimmingly. Also the details of the hair and make-up on Stephenson as Rachel in key scenes are downright inspired.
Under St. Marks is a tight space, but feels cozy and well utilized. The simple set pieces – from bed to shelving unit, to outdoor seating to coffee bar, express what they need to and are changed up by the actors as we watch. Even a simply-fashioned tree signifying the outdoors is a minimalist achievement. This is a delightful pond of talent definitely worth dipping into. Just watch those fingers!