A landscape of the bizarre

The plot goes something like this: After her sister, Rosalie, is killed in a bicycle mishap, Betty moves to New York with her 13-year-old son, Bert, and promptly inherits her dead sister’s apartment, lifestyle and job (or, rather, jobs — Rosalie worked at a bogus travel agency by day and moonlighted as a porn star). Soon thereafter, a procession of calamities even more morbid than the one that felled her sister are visited upon the hapless Betty, including a disastrous liaison with a wandering Southern gentleman, faux plantation owner Durwood Peach.

Like the playwright’s most famous work, Six Degrees of Separation (in which a young man convinces a naive wealthy family that he is Sidney Poitier’s son), John Guare’s Landscape of the Body explores, among other things, the painfully complex issue of personal identity.

Landscape‘s story — including Rosalie’s beyond-the-grave narration and an eternally shifting time-frame (it’s told primarily in flashbacks) — mimics its main character by having an identity crisis of its own. Is it a comedy? A tragedy? A murder mystery?

“It’s all [of those],” asserts Debbie Kelly, who stars as Betty in Painless Production’s version of the play. “I think it’s the kind of play that will give everyone a different feeling.”

Steve Livingston — whose past credits include Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque, Possessed (a musical about Dracula), and Red Emma, the story of anarchist Emma Goldman — directs the Asheville troupe’s newest production. And because the play was written more than 20 years ago, he notes, today’s audiences may have a different perspective on some of the socially volatile material that Guare wrote.

“We’ve become more sophisticated about sexual issues,” says Livingston. “[Because of] the specter of AIDS, there’s been a shift, a greater openness in the educated part of society.” The pot-smoking porn star’s wanton ways are, therefore, not necessarily the provocative issue they might have been two decades ago.

“We’re presenting [the play] lightly, in a less serious vein,” the director explains. “Not to the extent of changing the script — it is precisely what the playwright wrote — but you’re entitled to take it with a modicum of humor. … What is it with Betty and these abusive men?”

Kelly, however, chooses not to cast Betty in the fashionable role of victim.

“She is definitely a tough survivor,” the actress declares. “It’s about [her] search for identity. … I think she has been a victim, but somehow she’s made it and is moving along. … [In the end, she] still goes forward with life.”

Nice. But there are some pretty grisly scenes, en route. And even Betty’s happy ending isn’t exactly Hollywood-style.

The play’s humor (buoyed by the eerie spectacle of Rosalie’s posthumous narration) is as dark and erratic as a funnel cloud, and Landscape promises to be supremely in keeping with Painless Productions’ mission of providing singular presentations of contemporary plays.

For her part, Kelly foresees universal mystification at the green door.

“Parts of it, the audience won’t know whether to laugh or not,” she predicts. “[They’ll think], is this funny, or just really bizarre?”


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