Conversation Piece

There is a challenge to performing plays composed entirely of monologues. In order to be entertaining and engaging, the actors must establish within the first 30 seconds who their character is, including mannerisms, tone of voice and personality. If this first 30 seconds is not done well, the audience will tune out the performance and wonder what possessed them to come in the first place. It is a challenge that not many monologue-driven plays can overcome.

Stageworks’ 20th anniversary production of Talking With … , a presentation of 11 monologues written by Jane Martin, is one of those rare gems that does.

The all-female cast portrays their eccentric, and at times, insane, characters with a conviction and believability that helps to string together this seemingly loose-ended collection of speeches.

The monologues’ titles incorporate some theme from the monologue itself, only allowing theatergoers to guess at their content. The evening starts fittingly with “15 Minutes,” as an actress prepares to go on stage. Actor Eileen Koteles begins the play with energy and laughter, warming up the crowd for a fun evening.

While her character, Moira, is one of the most normal of the bunch, she hints at the eccentricity to follow.

The monologues go on to cover everything from a mid-life crisis to the death of a parent to an insane actor at an audition. Actors Linda Fajvan, Rosemary Orlando (a USF adjunct theater professor) and Andrea Graham all lend heart-breaking and hilarious reality to their portrayals of women struggling to cope with life, loss and desperation.

Dawn Truax’s “Rodeo” makes the first and only semi-political statement of the evening, with a somewhat timely tale of the consequences of corporate greed. Speaking with a drawl and cracking a whip, Truax tells the audience that to corporate businessmen, “everything is merchandise.” It is one of the only monologues not to end on a laugh, and the tone of warning is not lost on the audience.

Rounding out the first act is one of two USF students to perform in the show: Marisa Welles, who plays a spirited baton twirler. Welles’ wide-eyed expression lends itself well to her tale of a teenage twirler who has found herself gravely misunderstood and unfairly pigeonholed by a baton-bigoted society. Her zealousness is at once endearing and frightening as the audience realizes how serious she is about her twirling.

The second act starts with light as Chris Carlee takes the stage, illuminated by eight Victorian lamps. Her story of a woman growing older and growing more attached to inanimate objects is both sweet and painful. Carlee uses the lights and the stage well to convey the importance of the lamps and their presence in her life.

Nikki Flinn, a USF senior, has perhaps the most uncomfortable job of the evening. Flinn plays a devout southern Christian, who, as Flinn described her in a phone interview Saturday, “has a wonderfully spiritual grasp on life,” and is “really courageous.” The character is descended from a long line of snake handlers, noting, “You can fool a person, but you can’t fool a snake.”

Although the audience probably could do without Flinn pulling a live snake from the basket on stage, her performance is inspired, touching and admirably fit Flinn’s description of a character who has “learned to cope and get by.”

Amy Ragg-Smith gives an unbelievable performance as an expectant mother birthing an “abnormal” child. Ragg-Smith should be commended for her portrayal of one of the hardest things to fake: the pain, confusion and elation of childbirth.

Of all the monologues, the last two are the most disappointing. Pat Fenda’s performance of a woman who “starts” life at 35 and decides to celebrate each occasion with a new tattoo is bland and tired. Fenda’s tone doesn’t convey any enthusiasm and while the character is blasé, the performance shouldn’t be.

Gloria Bailey’s finale is a well-written but misplaced story about an older woman who dreams of living in a McDonald’s. A change in the lineup could easily fix this lackluster ending.

The set design, lighting and direction are minimal, as they should be. The theater is intimate, only seating 120 people, and does not require big gestures, loud sound systems or brightly colored sets. It requires a finesse to speak to the audience and with them, which all the women manage to do in spades.

Talking With … introduces audiences to 11 women who are funny, poignant, crazy and touching. And to the actors’ credit, the audience leaves the show feeling as if they have spent the last two hours with old friends, not a bunch of words on paper.