When I read Andrew Bovell’s play Speaking in Tongues, the current Shelterhouse production at the Cincinnati Playhouse (through March 4), I have to admit I was mystified as to what it would become on the stage.
The opening scene has four characters, Leon (R. Ward Duffy), Sonja (Amy Warner), Jane (Henny Russell) and Pete (Bruce Cromer). They play two couples who unknowingly cheat on one another on the same night.
Although that’s pretty coincidental, we begin to see the similarities and divergences of their trysts. Their encounters — from sensuous dancing in bars to awkward, deceitful conversations in seedy hotel rooms — occur simultaneously, circling around a nondescript single bed. Their lines overlap, intertwine and finish one another. It’s confusing to read on the page, but guided by Michael Evan Haney’s steady directorial hand, the story becomes clearer. But it’s still full of ambiguities.
Each of the first-act characters tells an odd story and, following intermission, the actors portray the people and events from those stories. Rewinding in time, we discover the events behind the anecdotes. The actors play multiple roles and more of the story becomes evident as the narrative unfolds. But neither the characters onstage nor the audience can ever be sure of the truth.
The first-act characters are each dishonest with one another. Russell’s Jane and Warner’s Sonya are no happier for their liaisons, one carried to its expected outcome, the other stopped short. Their conflicted partners dissemble about their motives. Pete says, “I want more; I want to feel something.”
In the second act, we meet five new characters with unfulfilled lives mired in current frustrations. Cromer (who’s enacted roles from Ebenezer Scrooge for the Playhouse to King Lear for Cincinnati Shakespeare) plays Neil, a weirdly incomplete man who can’t get over an obsession with Sarah, a woman with a commitment phobia played by Russell. She’s a patient of Valerie, a high-strung psychologist played by Warner. Valerie’s aloof husband John (Cromer again) is a suspect in her disappearance, as is a redneck neighbor Nick (Duffy, who comes back as the police detective character he played in the first act).
If this sounds a tad confusing, well, rest assured that Bovell’s tale unfolds more clearly with such an accomplished cast.
Their stories are enacted on a simple set designed by Cincinnati Entertainment Awards Hall of Famer Paul Shortt — six burnished aluminum poles connected with crisscrossed beams that don’t quite touch, a pattern repeated by glowing red lines on the floor. Furniture slides in and out in near-darkness, choreographed almost as sinuously as the tango dancing that opens the show. The physical imagery — the connections and disruptions between characters — underscores how the stories unfold.
Speaking in Tongues is a fascinating piece of theater. But it takes work to watch, follow and absorb. Casual theatergoers might be put off (some left at intermission), but those who like challenging drama and multi-layered acting will leave the theater with their gears still spinning.
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