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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 29, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 13
The decline and fall of American royalty
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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The decline and fall of American royalty

Pungent, poignant Grey Gardens accentuates the negative by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

GREY GARDENS
ACT THEATRE
March 16 - June 2


Grey Gardens is best described as a voyeuristic view into the lives of two female branches of American 'royalty.' In what has become a cult phenomenon in virtually all its forms (documentary, feature film, and now stage musical), audiences are fascinated by the dysfunctional relationship of Edith 'Big Edie' Ewing Bouvier Beale (aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis) and her daughter, 'Little Edie.' In a co-production between the 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre, Grey Gardens the musical offers notable talent in a disturbing presentation, showing how far and how hard the mighty can fall.

The (true) storyline follows the Beale women at the family manse, called Grey Gardens. Act One, which takes place in 1942, introduces matriarch Edith, a singer of modest talent who gave up the stage for marriage to a wealthy, staunchly conservative man. Although very absent, he is expected home that evening to announce his daughter's engagement to Joe Kennedy, Jr. Big Edie rules Grey Gardens - and the lives of those who live there - with a fierce hand. When regretful news reaches the home, Big Edie's selfish survival instincts kick into fearful mode, sabotaging the lives of those around her. She truly takes no prisoners.

The second act shows us the house and its occupants circa 1975, as they appear in the documentary. By now Grey Gardens is in utter ruins, overrun by cats (allegedly more than 200) and raccoons, and regularly threatened with condemnation by the local health department. The women live in utter dysfunction, both with their own forms of mental illness and in complete co-dependence on each other. Big Edie depends on her daughter to take care of her. Little Edie has developed alopecia, a disease causing all her hair to fall out, which led to her signature look - a scarf wrapped around her head. She has stayed, albeit resentfully, at Grey Gardens to care for her mother. What follows clearly expresses the definition of truth that's stranger than fiction.

HUNT, COHENOUR SHINE
Suzy Hunt is the practically bedridden Big Edie of 1975. Her work as the decrepit, nagging matriarch is so believable that I found myself wondering how she was going to take a bow at the curtain call. (She does so with a healthy jaunt.) She shows complete vulnerability in the shell of a woman, all the while letting the audience take glimpses at the strong force the character had previously been.

Patti Cohenour is nothing short of brilliant as she takes on the challenge of dual roles. In Act One she plays the younger Big Edie, enjoying the rules of entitlement. Cohenour brings out the strength, with a bit of scary thrown in, of this determined woman. She lets the audience see how the character turns away from the truths that hurt her and relishes those that hurt others. In Act Two she is the scarf-wrapped Little Edie representing the other, completely different, side of this twisted coin. Somehow Cohenour summons another persona: one of contradictory bitterness and remote optimism who is resentful of her mother, and yet her most devoted companion.

The play's book is by Doug Wright (author of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning I Am My Own Wife) and his script does a great job of drawing in the audience to this nonfictional train wreck. Unfortunately, the same can't quite be said of the music and lyrics (by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, respectively). The songs in the show try to set a mood but just seem to detract from the story, breaking up the flow. In fact, this is one musical that would likely work better without the songs. There are a few exceptions, including pretty much anything Patti Cohenour sings. Whether it is in the first or second act, whichever character she is playing (with heavy emphases on the second), Cohenour owns that stage. When she sings the 11 o'clock number, 'Another Winter in a Summer Town,' Cohenour delivers not only a beautifully haunting song, but we the audience suddenly see a clarity through the character's schizophrenia and resentment, and we get a saddened vision of the dreams of what could have been.

A CIRCULAR TALE
The play is at the ACT Theatre (presented in co-operation with the 5th Avenue, so don't get confused!) and is performed in the round. Scene changes are handled beautifully with platforms being raised and lowered under the stage. There is a certain intimacy when performing in the round, and it works well with this show due to the vulnerability it represents. The drawback is that when the actors have their backs to you, which they avoid as best they can, words can be muffled and difficult to understand. That's not a good thing for a show that is so character-driven, either in song or prose.

Grey Gardens is based on the 1975 documentary film of the same name by Albert and David Maysles. Originally suggested by Lee Radziwill as a history of where she and her sister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, spent their childhood, the film took a different turn when the directors met Big and Little Edie. It made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival of 1976 and quickly achieved cult status, despite never being entered in the main competition. HBO produced a feature film of the two fascinating women in 2007, featuring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.

The musical Grey Gardens opened on Broadway in November of 2006 and ran for just over 300 performances. Starring Christine Ebersole in the dual role, the musical was nominated for 10 Tony Awards in the 2007 season, winning three: Best Actress in a Musical (Ebersole), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Mary Louise Wilson), and Best Costume Design. For more information, visit www.acttheatre.org.

Visit Grey Gardens with SIFF
Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) is partnering with 5th Avenue Theatre/ACT Theatre to present a one-day-only film event celebrating the stage production of Grey Gardens. On Sunday, April 14, the original 1976 documentary and its follow-up, The Beales of Grey Gardens, will be screened at the Film Center. Attendees will be treated to complimentary mimosas and a continental brunch! The program begins at 11 a.m. See www.siff.net for details.

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