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May 4, 1999

Cogito Ergo Mortalis--"Six Women With Brain Death"

A Review by Ernie and Pat Pinson

If you're trying to make sense of the title of this play presented by The University of South Alabama Theater April 15-24, don't. There could just as easily have been eight as six characters, and the play could as easily have been written for men as for women. The real meaning comes in the words "Brain Death." The title has obvious affinities with Six Characters in Search of an Author by the Italian reality/illusionist Lugi Pirandello, except that instead of six characters looking for one author as in that play, we have in this play eight (count them) authors looking for six "real" characters. Furthermore, the source of Pirandello's plays stem from his wife's insanity of dealing with the very problem of knowing what is real, and what to do with it when you find out, hence the clear fit with the subtitle of this play: Expiring Minds Want to Know (with the play on the word "expiring" instead of both "inspiring" and "inquiring" minds). Brain death seems to come, then, from all the torture in delusions, illusions, allusions, fantasies, mind tricks, and dead ends that make truths indeterminate.

All fifteen scenes of the play are dominated by this slippery thesis. One need only go down the list of illusion/reality topics self-evident in each scene: Are TV soap operas as real as the gossip of one's neighbors? Are juicy stories in the tabloid newspapers less fictional than the truth? Can children differentiate between fantasy and reality in a nursery rhyme? Are Bible stories any more real than allusions to God as an alien come down to "beam us up" to heaven? And what about fictional characters who come off the pretense stage and interact directly with the audience's real world? Are we any more real than their illusionary presentation? (One character asks a man in the audience to "please zip up my dress.") A dream is very real while we are inside dreaming it. And so it is with a play; only after it's over do we recover from the bubble of its illusion. Shakespeare's famous line "All the world's a stage and we are merely players" thereby takes on added meaning.

There are lots and lots of neat things in this play. First, the blank stage set of multiple levels of square boards covered with newspaper/magazine script is so apropos to our blank minds similarly covered with the stuff of tabloid material. The backdrop squares illuminated (sometimes in red) this same newspaper script. Second, the costumes were just marvelously appropriate and lavish. The alien costumes, the sleek gowns in the two "Divas" scenes, the cuddly animal costumes in "Rambi" (Bambi/Rambo), the sparkling gowns in "Prom Queen," even the red/blue slack suits of the opening attracted attention. (Well deserved kudos to visiting guest designer David Thompson.) Third, the choreography by Aleesha Palombo was precision within variety on an awkward stage set. It's hard to see how body movement could have been more effective. Fourth, the music directed by Kent Skinner worked beautifully in the mod set, now jazz, now rumba, now classic, now country -- all done with only a four-member orchestra. And finally the uniqueness of scenic and lighting design by Lyle Miller (e.g., the blast of white lights on the audience as God descended on earth in a UFO, or the red illuminated squares coordinated with the red slacks, or the flick of the lights to show a new evolving idea). All of this points to a good play folks, a darn good play.

We can't critique the acting roles by name because none of the characters were identified by scene or by song. We can only say they were very even in talent and stage presence; they performed on a high level of collegiate performers; went through the fastest costume changes on record, sometimes right on stage; had the energy level of electrons in an atom; and timed their lines well in a quick-paced but understandable manner. Two or three were guilty of over acting (e.g., the lead ministerial role in "God Is an Alien" and the radio MC in "I Read Too Much") -- but it's difficult to fault the acting when the stereotypical roles may well have called for such false over-exuberance as presented.

The play's fifteen separate, mostly unrelated, scenes contained a series of single statements cleverly interrupted, enjoined or contradicted by two, three, four, then five other voices and/or songs. The props were absolutely super -- a real soap opera girl inside a TV set, actors in the isles announcing or talking to the audience, flower boxes and animal skins and machine gun Rambos and sex dolls and headless singers. We were captivated enough by this modern, upscale rendition of the 1950's Theater of the Absurd that we would go see it again for things we must have missed. And that, folks, we don't do often. The Reader Contestant quoted Descartes' "Cogito Ergo Sum" (I think, therefore, I am), but clearly the quote has to be transformed in this play to "Cogito Ergo Mortalis" (I think, therefore, brain death).

P.S. If adult language or sex offends you, please do not see this play even though it's in jest.

The Harbinger, P.O. Box U-980, Mobile, AL 36688-0001