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East Bay Express, June 4, 2003


Why Theater Perseveres

-- Lisa Drostova


Welsh poet Dylan Thomas intended under milk wood as a play for radio -- the first new medium that was supposedly going to supplant theater -- and Shotgun director Gina Pulice wanted to respect his "play for voices" while creating strong visual images for her audience. So she dressed up the eight members of her cast in stark black and white with an occasional cap, scarf, or tape measure for effect, ran them through countless hours of Suzuki physical warmups, and put them up on a stage that resembles nothing so much as a squared-off wedding cake. The end result is an engaging tangle of characters, animals, and dreams that manages to be both beautiful and dirty, funny, sad, and unsettling.

under milk wood winds through the small fishing village of Llareggub ("bugger all" spelled backward), the rolling hills covered with goats and nets full of fish, the shops and homes and memories of its people. Although Thomas allegedly planned to populate this town with grotesques of every stripe, the characters are often deeply wistful and always believable, even if their situations seem exaggerated. A man with epic dreams of poisoning his sharp-tongued wife, a young couple in love who conduct their affair strictly via the (steamed-open-by-the-postman's-wife) mail, a scuppered sea captain who imagines his dead comrades and loves clinging to his legs -- even in their gossipiest and most vicious moments, we know these people: their lives run parallel to our own.

Thomas' characters "pelican" fish down their throats, play wicked tricks on each other, shoot long looks of unrequited passion across the bar at the Sailor's Arms. More physical than Reader's Theatre tends to be, more poetic than a straight three-act narrative, under milk wood is brightened by moments such as the one where a woman carried around by the feet plays an owl, a woman sings of her dead love, a man's two wives play a fortune-telling game with the household money.

Beginning as it does in the middle of the night and running through a full day until the sleepers have returned to their unquiet beds, under milk wood for all its abundant charm does feel a bit long. Which is not surprising, since Thomas wanted to write a Welsh Ulysses that would take a full 24 hours to perform, but there are moments where, despite the best efforts of the talented cast, under milk wood's energy seems to flag. Still, the chorus of voices -- individual, woven together, seductive, angry, bleating, barking -- blends well with Amy Sass' fluid movement design to create a hypnotic, sometimes sentimental portrait of a town caught in time and dreams that puts the lie to the death of theater as a vital, expressive form.

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