Odd couples

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  May 12, 2009

In the second act, well, you know what happens in the second act — sans cats. As we stand in for the Maysles brothers, mother and daughter indulge in affected reminiscence of bygone days and rued decisions and bicker and talk over each other, and Big Edie boils corn on a hot plate to share with teenage stoner neighbor Jerry. Here the boudoir cookery resolves itself into a sweet, loopy number called "Jerry Loves My Corn" that's rendered by Sarah deLima — who with her white wig and squawky warble looks and sounds eerily like the Big Edie of the film. And she is trumped by Barrett, who braves Little Edie's unflattering fashions and nails her clenched accent and stagy, drifting delivery, even working the lockjaw into her songs — quite a feat given the roundness of Barrett's tone, particularly on the achingly lovely "Around the World."

Grey Gardens is a strange musical. Some of the first-act songs are jitterbugging filler, and the creators seem to have felt that the musical couldn't just peter out but required a climax and a cuddly reconciliation for its subjects, as sunk in inertia as they are in old crap (sparingly rendered in Cristina Todesco's set, a moving frame of shingles, shutters, and broken louvers). But the odd valor of the women and the poignancy of their shared dysfunction — the very things that make the documentary more than an exercise in voyeurism — are enhanced by the score. With or without the Maysles brothers, the show's same-sex Romeo and Juliet crossed with Miss Haversham cast their spell.

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SHAPESHIFTER: Rachael Warren (center) as the play's transformers represents female selfhood sacrificing part of its essence for human love and domesticity.

If all you know of the Aran Islands is the plays of Martin McDonagh, you probably think their populace is an untamed and violent lot. Similarly, if you take your information from Laura Schellhardt's Shapeshifter, which is in its world premiere by Trinity Repertory Company (through May 31), you might imagine that everyone on Orkney either is a selkie or is dating one. Really, there's only one guy on the whole hardscrabble Scottish archipelago of Schellhardt's imagining whose love object is not something beastly, bewitching, and wild.

Only one of the shape shifters of this evocative fable set in "a time before this one" is actually a seal that morphs into a person (and none of the play's transformers is male). The theater piece begins, in near darkness punctuated by a flickering candle, as an old man named Fierson tells the spine-chilling tale of a female dragon who, in human form, falls in love with a man whom her fire-breathing half sees as lunch. This dangerous inter-species romance holds particular resonance for Midge, the only child on the island, whose mother has died under murky circumstances, bequeathing her a legacy of premonition and attraction to flame.

Probably all of the play's interconnected romances are part of one imaginative skein through which Midge finds her way toward letting go of the mom who seems to have escaped more than shuffled off this mortal coil. But no sooner has the storytelling orgy of Fierson and Midge been dampened by the return of his wife than the aging couple's son, Tom, shows up carrying a mysterious woman he's pulled from the sea. She speaks no English; in fact, she doesn't speak at all, except to emit an eerie, open-mouthed gush of sound somewhere between whale song and an elephant's call. There is a wedding, and soon this shy creature, whom Midge dubs Mairie, is with child.

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