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Flight of Fancy

Rep Stages an Absurdly Enchanting Swan

By Jack Purdy | Posted 2/6/2002

The Swan

Elizabeth Egloff

Talk about demanding roles. As the title character in The Swan, Christopher Lane must make all manner of convincing bird noises, perform with startling agility (you try leaping from your kitchen counter to the top of the refrigerator sometime), and also appear unashamedly buck naked on stage for several minutes at a stretch. And he does it all so convincingly that he makes playwright Elizabeth Egloff's absurd dreamscape seem absolutely real.

Drawing its source material in equal parts from Greek myth and Kafka/Ionesco surrealism, The Swan is set in the present day Midwest. A much-divorced/widowed young nurse named Dora (Sherri Edelen) is sleeping on her couch one night when a huge bird flies smack into her living-room window. She takes the wounded critter in, only to find it metamorphosing into a man--albeit a man who continues to exhibit very birdlike behavior--whom she dubs Bill. The birdman/nurse ménage is very troubling to Kevin (Jack Vernon), Dora's married lover and also the town milkman. It's so troubling, in fact, that Kevin wants his mistress to go with him to a marriage counselor.

This is pretty much par for course in the world Egloff has created. It's a world that veers from wacky sight gags suited to the Three Stooges (Dora casually pulls an ax out from underneath her sofa early on) to self-conscious poetry, as the role of the Swan in Dora's life becomes clearer--not that it ever becomes totally clear. In part, this is because Egloff mixes "naturalistic" scenes--Kevin threatening the Swan/Bill with a vacuum cleaner--with dream sequences that are only slightly more unreal, such as a gorgeous interlude in which the bird is transformed into a white-suited seducer. Ultimately, the Swan is either the great love of Dora's life or Death with a beak. Or both. Or neither.

Obviously, this is the sort of play that, in the wrong hands, could be a nightmarish mishmash, but Edelen and Vernon ground it with perfectly mundane interpretations to their roles. That is, they play Dora and Kevin as normal small-town Midwesterners, who accept the Swan as more or less an everyday occurrence. At first, they go about their business tending the sick and delivering milk as if Dora had only taken in a stray cat or some other quotidian beast. Even as the Swan becomes Bill and starts talking (and Lane's vocal transformation from squawks to syllables is especially affecting), Dora and Kevin find it interesting rather than scary.

Edelen's and Vernon's approach, coupled with Tony Cisek's plain and functional set design, gives the play the realistic anchor it must have in order to avoid preciousness and, yes, flightiness. If Egloff strains too mightily for poetry at times, her sure comedic sense and love of the patently ridiculous make The Swan take wing.

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