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Theater Review:

"SEVEN MOVES" at About Face Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

"Seven Moves," a new play by About Face Theatre artistic associate Patricia Kane -- based on local author Carol Anshaw’s novel -- is billed as "a psychological suspense story." But this faux-metaphoric mystery, receiving its world premiere at About Face, barely outlines the main character’s relationships, making it impossible for the audience to invest in their tragedy or believe an inextricable bond was ever forged in the first place.

The drama centers on psychologist Chris Snow (also played by Kane), whose enigmatic photographer-lover Taylor (Elizabeth Rich) vanishes after a spat involving Taylor’s flirtations at a dinner party. Could Taylor have flown off to Morocco, where we learn she was obsessed with a bisexual French woman? Was she abducted and murdered? Is it possible that she committed suicide? None of these questions are ever answered, but we leave the theater convinced Taylor has met a disastrous end.

These gnawing questions, however, underscore the playwright’s larger point: that we can live with someone we think we know, yet realize only when it’s too late that they were softly crying out for help. So the play, like real-life relationships, exists in the realm of conundrum and incompleteness. While grounded in truth and a fascinating topic for a novel, that overriding theme does not necessarily succeed in a dramatic format.

More contrivance than conundrum, Kane’s play merely provides us with unfocused snapshots (certainly a metaphor for Taylor’s occupation – also mirrored in the production’s shutter speed-like design). And, because the opening scenes condense Chris and Taylor’s five-year relationship to a few minutes, Chris’ Odyssean quest to find Taylor seems implausible. That’s not to say a person is worth more later in a relationship. But, at no point, do these women appear to be having more than a fling.

It’s also obvious from the start that the alluring Taylor has commitment issues. She shamelessly flirts with the rather dowdy Chris at a party she’s at with her current lover. The two are generally mismatched: Chris often exhausted, analytical and jealous; and Taylor flippant, taciturn and anxious. In order for Taylor’s disappearance to carry some weight, we have to believe these women shared something soulfully transcendent. That never comes across, especially when Taylor hits on Tiffany, a "meta-mime," in front of Chris’ eyes in their own home.

This points to another problem. "Seven Moves" can’t decide if it’s Chris or Taylor’s story. Yes, we see the control-freak Chris, also a card sharp who gambles with her own heart, self-destruct as she seeks some shred of truth to grasp. And Taylor, who frequently appears in flashback backed by melodramatically ominous music, struggles to address her own serious psychological issues – particularly her constant and dangerous womanizing (which Chris later learns about when she finds Taylor’s laptop journal).

Yet neither character has been given any compelling dimensions. Therefore, their plights ultimately come across as empty and trivial.

That’s a shame because, in more skilled dramatic hands, the intricate vulnerabilities of author Anshaw’s characters could have been more believably, completely and maturely explored. Unfortunately, "Seven Moves" consists of cardboard cut-outs, from Chris’ best male buddy Daniel to a tough-skinned detective.

About Face’s artful production, on the other hand, makes one realize how a deeply thoughtful director and committed ensemble can iron out a script’s wrinkles. Director Jessica Thebus gives this staging an awe-inspiring seamlessness. Anyone wishing to view a play with exquisitely poetic transitions should observe Thebus’ gift for moving each scene forward through an actor’s whisper of a change in posture or gesture.

The quality of acting, however, varies. While Kane’s Chris tends to stay at one dull level, even when she comes unhinged, Rich manages to undergo a quietly moving transformation through body language alone.

Marguerite Hammersley, a stunning chameleon, shines in three quirky roles: Chris’ chic newscaster friend; an abused Latina patient; and Taylor’s suave French lover. Too bad Hammersley’s talents are wasted on portraying people written as caricatures -- making for goofy character studies, nothing more. Amy Matheny, another fine actress in multiple roles, is also saddled with broadly penned characters, particularly Chris’ former butch lover with a volatile edge and the ditzy performance artist.

Scott Duffy does his best to make Chris’ cliched best friend Daniel supportive and likable. But Brian Goodman’s rough detective seems forced; and Margaret Kusterman applies a clunky weirdness to Chris’ flamboyant psychology mentor Myra (costumed in eccentric flowing robes).

Despite its flaws, this is a provocatively designed production. Set designer Matthew York’s well-appointed home is framed by reaching tree branches. And Darin Keesing’s photographic lighting has the capacity to transform those branches from benign to threatening – very much like these women’s relationship.•

"Seven Moves" runs through February 17 at About Face Theatre, 3212 N. Broadway. Tickets: $22-$25. Call 773-549-3290 or log onto www.aboutfacetheatre.com.

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