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Lasso of Truth by Carson Kreitzer, Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley CA

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Members, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

Photos Courtesy of MTC

It’s a Wonder, But Lasso of Truth Sends a Mixed Message

 

Jessa Brie Moreno, Liz Sklar, Nicholas Rose

There’s much to like about Lasso of Truth, a flashy multi-media presentation with lots of wit and pizzazz. This kinky, noisy comic book come to life lands first at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley in its rolling world premiere for the National New Play Network, moving on to productions in Atlanta and Kansas City. MTC co-commissioned this original work in 2010 from Minnesota playwright Carson Kreitzer, best known for her strong, provocative scripts and controversial subject matter. In this regard, Lasso of Truth does not disappoint.

Lasso explores the quirky origins of the Wonder Woman comic book character at the dawn of World War II, created by one William Moulton Marston. He had a PhD in psychology from Harvard, wrote numerous scholarly essays, invented the polygraph machine, and was a bondage enthusiast and polyamorist.  Inspired by his wife Elizabeth and their live-in partner Olive Byrne, he decided to combine his diverse talents into a single enterprise: to create a comic strip character based upon the women he loved, and then use it to sell his unconventional ideas for a better world to young readers.

In a letter to his publisher Marston said “This..is the one truly great contribution of my Wonder Woman strip to moral education of the young. The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound…”.  Making the case for bondage became his mission in life, and starting in December 1941 until his death in 1947, he teamed up with illustrator Harry Peter to fill his comic strips with images of bondage and playful domination. Whenever she wasn’t bound in chains herself, Wonder Woman used her super-human strength to vanquish the bad guys and her magic “lasso of truth” to tie them up and force them to reveal their secrets. On her wrists were heavy silver slave manacles that deflected bullets. She was truly an Amazon, a feminine superhero, committed to curing evil with womanly strength and love. For Marston, art imitated life.

Lauren English, John Riedlinger

Lasso’s  story involves two sets of characters, each with their own timeline, never quite intersecting each other’s realms. In the contemporary timeline of the 1990s we find The Girl (Lauren English) on a quest for a rare comic book that first featured her childhood heroine, Wonder Woman, and The Guy (John Riedlinger) who owns the comic. She’s brash and assertive, eager to see what he has. He’s nerdy, elusive and coy, unwilling to show his immensely valuable prize until he can reveal the story behind its creation. Meanwhile, in another part of town (and about 50 years earlier), there’s that odd little household: The Inventor, Marston (Nicholas Rose); The Wife, Elizabeth (Jessa Brie Moreno)and The Amazon, Olive (Liz Sklar). There are superficial glimpses of their daily life: moments of inspiration, talk of careers, passionate murmurings, babies being born, and through it all, lots and lots of sexy cuddling with ropes and chains being the toys of choice. The story unfolds as scenes flash back and forth in time with a little help from vivid projected comic-book panels and wildly inventive sound effects.

The entire cast delivers first-rate performances within the limitations imposed by their characters. English, a two-time winner of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award, makes a strong impression as the ultimate Wonder Woman fan. Riedlinger allows his cryptic character to slowly unfold at the same pace as his revelation of the strange truth about the comic book’s origins. These two interact on a more natural level and bring perspective to the show. On the other hand, the Marston family seems to be drawn like caricatures of real people, and as such it’s a challenge to fully identify with them. Even so, Mr Rose brings the lively enthusiasm of a carnival barker to his role. Sklar faced similar challenges, but was able to convey a certain controlled sultriness. Probably the most difficult part falls to Moreno, whose reactions and choices are at the heart of the story. She maintains a kind of brilliant grace and acceptance of her life.

The “lasso of truth” carried by Wonder Woman is a symbol of bondage and may be an allegory for Marston’s polygraph machine. This, in fact, was the catalyst that led Kreitzer to write the play. However, according to director Jasson Minadakis, Lasso “has a lot to say about…how far we’ve come towards equality and how much further we have to go.” But if the play is about equality and not sexual peccadilloes, then the relationship between Marston and the women in his life should be dialed back just a bit and treated more matter-of-factly, with a more balanced focus on the women’s accomplishments.  Instead, there’s a titillating, voyeuristic theme running throughout the show that distracts and seems contrived; the characters lack depth and genuine warmth.  The story doesn’t seem to do justice to the real-life family, who by all accounts were very loving, happy and stable There is much more to learn from these women than what we see in Lasso. That leads to the question: What is the real message here? Whatever it is, it’s unclear.

Nonetheless, there’s still the exceptional performances by the cast, clever direction and staging, terrific set design (Annie Smart), cartoon graphics (Jacob Stoltz), moving images (Kwame Braun) and sound effects (Cliff Caruthers) that all work together to make the show fun and very entertaining. There are amazing machines with flashing lights, and video clips of the frenzied scratchings of the lie detector in blood-red ink, like earthquakes being recorded. Even a delightfully digitized Gloria Steinem weighs in on the proceedings. It does try for some eroticism, but the artificial nature of the characters makes the effort seem eerily one-dimensional. One of these scenes is noteworthy, however, if for nothing more than the truly gorgeous staging, lighting effects (Jim French) and negligees (Callie Floor).

Copyright © 1942 DC Comics, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Wonder Woman became an iconic symbol of women’s liberation in the 1970s. Even though women have made great strides in being accepted in positions of leadership, there’s that backlash phenomenon. They continue to be objectified as purely sexual beings in popular culture, and Lasso does little to add value to this discussion; it only pays lip service to women’s issues.

Marston believed that if women ruled the world, it would be a better place and there would be no more wars. It’s too bad we couldn’t see more of that utopian vision in Lasso.

 

When: now through March 16, 2014

8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays

7:30 p.m. Wednesdays

2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays

2 p.m. Saturday, March 15

1 p.m. Thursday, March 6

Tickets: $37 to $58

Location: Marin Theatre Company

397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA 94941
Phone: 415-388-5208

Website: www.marintheatre.org