Friday, April 24, 2009

Caitlin and the Swan (Under St. Marks)

By Leah
dark • surreal comedy • definitely not for kids • shock value with a point

BOTTOM LINE: This is a daring and intelligent comedy, and not for the faint of heart.

When I saw the press release for Caitlin and the Swan, I was intrigued but also a little weary. The phrase "themes of bestiality, feminism, and the twisted links between pain and love" doesn't exactly scream comedy. There was a decent enough chance, I thought, that it'd be a lot of crude jokes done purely to make people gasp. What I saw instead was a thoughtful, funny play (with a refreshing lack of pretension) that confronts some pretty uncomfortable topics with wit and bravery.

The show revolves around Caitlin, a frustrated SAT tutor, who discovers that her friend Rachel is having an affiair with a pig, and subsequently begins having her own all-consuming bestial fantasies about a certain feathered creature. Marguerite French plays Caitlin with vulnerablity and sympathy and she draws the audience into Caitlin's painful obsession. All the actors approach their characters sans judgement, which is paramount in a play that challenges some pretty deeply held beliefs. As Rachel and Priya, Caitlin's animal loving friends, Theresa Stephenson and Shetal Shah bring genuine compassion and impressive comic chops to their roles, making them into fleshed out people rather than just Caitlin's sounding boards.

It is a testament to both the writing and directing that a show with so unrelatable a topic can still successfully reach an audience. Playwright Dorothy Fortenberry doesn't shy away from asking direct and uncomfortable questions in the script itself, and while I usually dislike that rather blunt tactic, director Joshua Conkel creates this atmosphere of a heightened reality, this just vaguely surreal world, in which asking such questions over a cup of coffee doesn't actually seem entirely out of place. Throw some dream sequences in there (again, a usually off-putting tactic but beautifully executed by choreographer Croft Vaughn and dancer Elliott T. Reiland) and you've got a show that, by all rights, should sink under the weight of its own aims, but doesn't. What keeps it afloat are the underlying themes - yes it's a play about bestiality, but it's also about trying to find what makes you happy. Take that intellectually adventurous friend and debate it all the way home.

(Caitlin and the Swan runs through May 2nd at Under St. Marks, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $18, call 212-868-4444 to order.)

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