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Life and Death on the Great Lakes 

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TEN NOVEMBER

Wisdom Bridge Theatre

THE LOVE TALKER and F.M.

Rejoice Repertory Theater Company

I have to admit that I'm only vaguely familiar with Gordon Lightfoot's popular ballad "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," which is based on the November 10, 1975, sinking of one of the Great Lakes' most fabled transport ships. But I brought my own baggage to Ten November, Steven Dietz's new play on the same theme, which is having its world premiere at Wisdom Bridge. I happened to spend a good deal of time in the middle 1970s, beginning about six months after the Fitzgerald disaster, in the Lake Superior region, where the drama takes place. It's an exceptionally beautiful area, and it has an intriguing quality of being contemporary and old-fashioned at the same time, as if it had one foot in the high-tech present but another foot, maybe the more important one, in the days of the tall ships.

Ten November captures that slightly mysterious and fanciful mood quite beautifully, and with a good deal of humor. The images in the play--of doomed sailors sitting at their below-decks mess, of enigmatic goddesses or sirens moving gently over the landscape, of the power, beauty, and terror of the great waters and their storms--are timeless, mythic, deeply ingrained in our race's collective unconscious. Yet the words that the sailors speak are recognizably, incongruously, and so humorously funny: instead of talking about the Great White Whale, these guys talk about Squeaky Fromme trying to shoot President Ford ("I'm amazed he didn't fall into the bullet"), about pet rocks and the New York fiscal crisis and the World Football League. A crewman facing his own death doesn't scribble a note and toss it into a bottle; he tapes it on his pocket cassette player ("Toss the White Album onto the water").

It is in such moments as these, the quirky bits of human comedy, that Ten November shows its promise as a modern-ancient tale of men at sea. Playwright Dietz, a Minneapolis resident, has chosen a nonlinear approach to his story (What made the Fitzgerald sink? Nobody knows, and the ship was never recovered). He crosscuts cinematically back and forth in time, between "reality" (the inquest into possible culpability for the disaster) and ritual: for instance, the "three sisters," whose beautiful singing comments on the story and on the themes of man versus nature while adding so much to the haunting atmosphere of the piece. The ensemble (nine men in addition to the three female singers) take on a variety of roles, functioning as both protagonists and chorus. Interestingly, this approach to the story of an unsolved mystery recalls one of last season's best productions, Bailiwick Repertory's Execution of Justice (about the court trial of Harvey Milk's killer)--it's worth noting that Richard E.T. White, Wisdom Bridge's new artistic director and the director of this production, was responsible for commissioning Execution back when he ran the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco.

Where Ten November falls short, though, is in bringing out what real drama there is in the story of the Fitzgerald's doom. We learn a lot about the factors behind the incident--including the fact that the profit-conscious company that owned the ship sent it out overloaded into one of the worst storms ever to hit the Great Lakes--but we never truly experience the human tragedy of the deaths of all 29 hands on board. The script never builds up any characters whom we get to know well enough really to care about--except, ironically, the three singers, who aside from their vocal magic seem to symbolically suggest not only the three Fates of ancient legend but the "Three Sisters" of the lake, three huge consecutive waves that can (and in this case probably did) drive a ship underwater in a matter of seconds. Valarie Tekowsky, Nancy Voights, and Ora Jones are supposed to stand outside the action as they harmonize on Eric Peltoniemi's evocative, folkish score; but they are so strong and so ominipresent that they end up dominating the action.

This isn't to take away anything from the other actors--Danny Goldring, Juan Ramirez, Harry J. Lennix, Vince Viverito Sr., Larry Brandenburg, Edward Wilkerson Jr., Joe Van Slyke, Robert Bundy, and William Dick (who has one of the play's best moments, as a man convinced the ship was done in by a UFO). They are all excellent, and they function as an ensemble superbly under White's fine direction. But the playwright--who, surely, intends to rewrite and develop this property for other theaters--needs to look at the people around whom the story revolves, and fill in the now gaping gaps to add the human dimension needed to make Ten November more urgently demanding of our attention.

The Rejoice Repertory Theater, a company directed by voice-over specialist Ted Liss and affiliated with his drama school in Old Town, is opening its second season with a pair of one-acts loosely connected by a common interest in sex, sin, and southerners. The first half of the evening is the midwest premiere of Deborah Pryor's The Love Talker, seen last spring at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's New Works Festival. A potentially spooky story of backwoods sexual witchcraft in the Clinch Mountains of Virginia, Love Talker plays like a post-sexual-revolution Alfred Hitchcock or Twilight Zone episode, which means that it rises or falls on its atmosphere. There's precious little of that here, except occasionally in the depraved performance of Eliza Coyle as a hot-to-trot, murderous adolescent seduced by a studly incubus known as the Love Talker. He is intended to be the embodiment of temptation but is played here as a middlingly sexy gas station attendant who's seen one too many Elvis Presley videos.

The second play on the bill is Romulus Linney's F.M., a comedy about a writing teacher in a small Alabama college. Her three students are a timid, repressed poetess, a sharp-tongued man-hater, and (inevitably) a loutish drunken hick who (inevitably) reveals the soul of a hillbilly Henry Miller. This last character is played quite enjoyably by Jerry Pinkowski, who demonstrates the only thing approaching consistent spontaneity and ensemble awareness during the whole evening.

I liked Pinkowski and Coyle enough to look for their credits in the program, but the only Rejoice person given any bio space is Ted Liss. Quoth he: "Reality on stage is often dull whereas theatrical reality involves the audience emotionally providing a total theatrical experience." I saw nothing, save for moments of Coyle's performance and most of Pinkowski's, approaching reality, theatrical or otherwise, on the Rejoice stage during this interestingly programmed but not ready for prime time performance.

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