Shirley Valentine/Dark Ride | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Shirley Valentine/Dark Ride 

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at the Wellington Theater

Shirley Valentine is a monologue in two acts. Scene one of the first act goes roughly like this: Joke, joke, bawdy joke, dark hint, joke, joke, darker hint, joke, joke, crumble, cry, bittersweet joke, blackout. Then there's a relatively brief second scene (joke, joke, joke), followed by intermission and act two: Joke, joke, message, message, big speech, blackout.

Makes a nice rhythm, doesn't it? Well paced, like a dance band's wedding repertoire: waltz, waltz, mashed potato, polka, hora, waltz. The evening definitely bounces along.

But however smartly it moves, Shirley Valentine grows tedious very quickly. The rhythm itself begins to wear on you, the almost certain transitions from beat to beat and mood to mood. You know what's coming next even if you don't know exactly what form it's going to take. There's about as much real intrigue in Shirley Valentine as there is in wondering whether the dance band's slow song will be "Send in the Clowns" or "Feelings."

This predictability is pretty much a natural consequence of the show's format and ambitions. It's a monologue, after all; and because it's a monologue it can't offer us much in the way of action. There's very little to see here, beyond Shirley's making dinner in scene one and taking swigs out of a bottle of mineral water in act two. The showing is incidental; the telling is all--and telling is all rhythm.

Now, it's certainly possible to manipulate story-telling rhythms in engaging and unpredictable ways. But Shirley's author, Willy Russell, isn't much interested in that. In fact, it's just about the last thing he wants to do. Intent on pleasing a mainstream commercial audience, Russell wants to keep his presentation rigorously conventional. He wants to be heartwarming. He wants to be funny. He wants to be tender and sad and awfully, awfully endearing. He wants to tell a familiar story in a familiar way.

And so he uses familiar rhythms. Waltz, waltz, mashed potato, polka, hora, waltz: we always know where we are and what's coming next.

But Russell doesn't stop there. He compounds his rhetorical banalities with emotional cliches. The title Shirley is Mrs. Joe Bradshaw, a middle-aged Liverpool housewife with two grown but rather feckless children and a dour lump of a husband whose universe is structured around the concept of steak on Thursdays. Mrs. Bradshaw talks--literally--to the kitchen wall, with whom she discusses feckless children, dour husbands, mean teachers, missed orgasms, dull care, and the lost pleasures of those long-ago days when she chewed gum, had an attitude, and was known by her maiden name: Shirley Valentine.

Shirley's divorced friend Jane has invited Shirley for a holiday in Greece. After much commiseration with the wall, she goes--and on that sunswept isle of wine and romance meets Costas, her personal Zorba, with whom she not only makes up some of her missed orgasms but learns to live life to its fullest.


This being the 90s, Russell has to allow Shirley the recklessness of choosing to stay in Greece. But he frames that choice very carefully, making sure we understand that her children no longer need her, and that her husband might yet reclaim her if only he can loosen up a little. We want a charge, not a challenge; Russell never lets Shirley dance too far from conventional rhythms.

What's interesting here is that underneath the ticktock of Russell's middlebrow metronome it's still possible to make out the deeper, darker syncopations of Shirley's real story--a sort of shadow beat, hinting at a harder anger and a more profound liberation. Ellen Burstyn's primary achievement in the role is her ability to play that other beat, if only as a resonance around her dominant perkiness.

In the end, however, Burstyn has to serve the script as Russell wrote it. Which is a little disappointing, but hardly unpleasant. I mean, you don't have a bad time at a wedding just because the band insists on playing the usual tunes. Shirley Valentine can be as jolly and cozy and reassuring as your cousin's wedding dinner--just as long as you don't go expecting to hear hip-hop.


Blind Parrot Productions

Don't expect hip-hop at the Blind Parrot production of Len Jenkin's Dark Ride, either. Jenkin is way beyond anything as danceable as that. His script goes for a kind of atonal baroque sound instead: something like what you might expect to hear if you tore up an old-master score, shuffled the pieces, taped them back together, and played the result.

But that's not what Jenkin did. Not at all. Dark Ride may seem chancy--and even promote itself as a wild race into the unknown--but it's actually a tightly structured contrivance conscientiously designed to wind in on itself, running down, through, across, and around multiple layers of narrative having to do with lost gems, lost loves, and oculists. More M.C. Escher than John Cage, Jenkin remains in strict control at all times.

And that's his trouble. Dark Ride might have made its point about the orchestral chaos of life more profoundly if Jenkin had let go a little and admitted some of that chaos into the process of its creation. If he'd truly mixed things up, like, say, Jeffrey M. Jones, who builds his plays out of found materials or shuffles up scenes. As it is, we get less a sense of a dark ride than a tour. The terrain may be weird, but there's no real danger of getting lost.

Still, Reader critic Diana Spinrad's direction makes the weirdness rich. Her tone is sharp and flip, her casting astute--especially in the case of Bill Lynn, who resembles a sinister Jimmy Cagney as the jeweler chasing the gem.


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