By Claire Chafee
Directed by Maureen Shea
Coyote Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts
Through February 2nd

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

It was particularly satisfying to be crowded into a standing-room-only audience in the Boston Center for the Arts' Black Box last weekend watching the Coyote Theatre's dazzling production of Claire Chafee's "Why We Have A Body". Some months earlier, I had been one of about a dozen people present for the company's pre-production staged reading. Chaffee's script, like many of the most interesting theatre pieces being produced in adventurous venues around the country these days, violates all the traditional "rules" of dramatic construction. At the discussion that followed the reading, someone from the audience pointed out that "Why We Have A Body" has no conflict, no plot. Nothing of consequence happens. That is to say, the characters -- if they are indeed characters, and not allegorical chips off a single psychic block-- may be assigned eventful histories, and they may tell each other and the audience about these events and reflect upon the significance of them; but nothing that happens comes as a direct consequence of one character's acting upon another. QED, no plot. The play proceeds poetically --by image, by theme and variation.

A few years back, it would have been very unlikely that a small Boston theatre interested in such a script would have had access to artists with the talent, experience, and resources to demonstrate its effectiveness. Now, Coyote does. Here's the proof, the progress. A few years back, it would have been very unlikely that a script like "Why We Have A Body" would find an audience in Boston, even in a production as beautifully realized as this one, directed by Emerson College's Maureen O'Shea. Bostonians have been notoriously wary of anything that isn't a certified brand-name well-made play. Even now, some critics were unimpressed. Though Millis in the tiny South End News called "Body" "The real thing--poignant, mysterious, immediate and important", and Bordas in Bay Windows pronounced it "perfect", Marx in the mainstream Globe dismissed it as ".. flyblown surrealism...half-baked ideas in search of a play", and Donahue in the Phoenix piled on with ".. an unwieldy mass of lost allusions, a rag-tag army of marooned metaphors..". But thanks to the adventurous young audience for new work the Center for the Arts has built in recent seasons, people came to judge Chaffee's play for themselves before the reviews came out, and went away to spread the good news by word of mouth. Coyote's splendid production got the sell-out crowds it deserved.

Chaffee's script deals with an elemental world where connections can never be taken for granted, and attention is never simply paid but bounces between the an obsessive-compulsive surplus and the attention deficit of the distracted and disordered. Water and fire are the main elements, but sun-baked sand and the night sky figure, too.

Three of the four characters who make up the cast of "Why We Have A Body" are members of the same family. Lili, played by the strong and subtle Stephanie Clayman, is a private investigator who has known since childhood that she was different from other little girls, a lover of women. Lili is outsider, observer, sleuth: a woman for whom "everything is a metaphor for something else". She has recently begun a new affair with a married woman, a high-flying paleontologist named Renee (Karen White), but Lili is afraid that this affair will prove as unsatisfactory as the failed pairings that preceded it.

Laura Lee Shink has the flashy role, as Lili's younger sister Mary-- a violent literalist whose "schizophrenia" embodies the contradictory female self-definitions that litter the contemporary landscape. Mostly Mary identifies with Joan of Arc, but lately she been acting out a more American form of heroism, holding up 7-11 convenience stores. Mary has been in therapy since childhood, resisting the efforts of a small army of psychologists to deprive her of her dreams and visions and her ability to make trouble. It's no wonder Mary fights to hang onto her dreams: they are doozies. She has regular "celebrity nightmares", where she hobnobs casually with the faddish and the famous, and literary ones where feminist authors and iconic characters mingle. Her ultimate dream is too good not to give away: Mary dreams she is fishing through the ice, and she gets a big bite. When she reels in her catch, it is Virginia Woolf -- and Virginia is really pissed. She insists on being thrown back into the water. Next Mary hooks Ophelia, who is "nicer about it" but asks to be put back, too. Last to be caught is Joan of Arc's frozen heart, which resisted the flames of martyrdom. The heart thaws, beats and speaks: "Fish somewhere else", it cries!

Barbara Blossom veers between comic and cosmic opacity as Mary and Lili's mother, Eleanor, who once listened to Scarlotti thoughout her pregnancy for the fetus' sake and built her whole identity around her maternal role. By now, Eleanor has given up worrying about her offspring and gone off to South America. She hopes to "look for her life"-- which she seems to suspect that she has mislaid like a handkerchief or a handbag-- once she is out of the range of her daughters' telepathic cries for help.

Much of the play is simply these characters' musings on the themes that make up their theatrical lives. More allegorically than realistically constituted, the women speak to the audience more than to each other. (Eleanor speaks only to the audience) Their language is imagistic, epigrammatic; reflective rather urgent; and the actresses lend it the excitement of discovery, the shifting textures of minds at work or at play.

The production design, which incorporates scrims and projections, is the visual counterpart of the image-laden text, and it is a feast for the eyes. There's desert and jungle, pond and pyre, an exotic marketplace and a black and white silent movie maze of moving traffic. Set by Zeynep Bakkal, lighting by Brian Lilienthal, costumes by Rafael Jaen, sound by Brian Pratt, videography by Austin DeBeshe, choreographed movement by, presumably, director O'Shea: every element that went into this production gave evidence of confident artistry. What a pleasure! Maybe Boston really is, at long last, growing into a "good theatre town".