The Whore and Mr. Moore by Michael Cristofer. Directed by Paul Mullins.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"It’s not Kabuki. . .nor Noh, neither."
And what is this play, this world premiere play, at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont? It is certainly a comedy, except that in classic comedy nobody dies and in this play someone does. It’s not a tragedy just because someone dies; it’s too funny. It’s high laughter content keeps it from being a drama, certainly. Is it existential, perhaps, or satirical? Is it parody or not? Well, it does disinter and surgically defile a classic film, "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" with stellar roles for Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney. So just what is "The Whore and Mr. Moore?"
A new play by Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist Michael Cristofer is certainly something worthwhile. This new play is definitely worth a look. It takes its three characters and its audience into areas not generally explored in the theater any longer. Like Thornton Wilder’s "The Skin of Our Teeth" it uses the audience as a sounding board for ideas, addresses questions and concepts at the gathered hordes in seats and uses them to focus characters in the play on stellar realities.
"Pornography is the collapse of metaphor," says Maggie, the Whore of the title in defense of her theatrical concepts. She is dictating her memoirs in dialogue form to the playwright, Mr. Moore, and she will not stand to be challenged by him on her understanding of the tolerance of ideas that an audience can bring to such a project.
If you know the film from which this play is drawn, it will not help you one bit in coming to terms with the play. In both a ghost helps a writer to make a living with stories from the past that no one has heard, that no one knows. In both the relationship of the two grows closer than should be possible and in both one sacrifices for the good of the other. The principal difference between them is the seriousness of the work and its commitment to its peculiar reality.
Judd Hirsch plays Mr. Moore and he begins the play with metaphors. He confuses his real estate agent completely and when she becomes his secretary later on in the play she confuses him in return. He tells the two women in the play about the ever-present audience, corrects their grammar, announces special effects - which happen instantly - and wallows in them, dictates, types and hand-writes his work as he goes. Hirsch does all this with a feline grace that is only matched by Janet Zarish as Maggie. As good as the women are in this play it is Hirsch who carries the piece. His allusions to the alternative reality, doing a play for an audience, are jarring and encouraging. We don’t like his pointing us out in the stalls and the boxes, and yet when he asks us to do something we do it without hesitation. Cristofer and his character make us believe in the possibilities of transforming our everyday nonsense into true theatrical paraphernalia. There is something encouraging in the off-hand manner in which Hirsch plays through all of this craziness.
Zarish is a delight as Maggie, emotionally a wizard with spot-on shifts and changes in her physical makeup as well. She plays a mistress of all knowledge who really knows very little and lets that show. Victorian in demeanor and costume she brings an up-to-date concept of man and of womankind to her role. Her second act diatribe about feminism is nothing short of brilliant, both in her delivery of the piece and the writing by Cristofer on this topic. Zarish has a very sensual way about her use of the machines.
Figgy, the real estate agent who transpires different sets human characteristics moving from a solid reality to a screwball personality without batting an eyelash. Betsy Aidem plays each and every aspect of Figgy with a thoroughness that is most impressive. She is as funny as can be when she wants to be and also take so seriously an individual moment that she is moving. At one point she seems to have completely lost her tenuous hold on her sanity and that was truly frightening at first, then very funny in retrospect and repeats.
The director, Paul Mullins, appears to have this play well in hand. Visual concepts flow into one another flawlessly under his direction and these amazingly strong, graphically bizarre characters leap to life, like a newly lit candle will suddenly give light, as he draws them out from the depths of the actors’ psyches. The playwright has timed his laughs and the director finds the timing and makes it work. This is a superb union of creative entities at work.
Narelle Sissons has designed a set that is indescribable in a few short words. Barbara A. Bell’s costumes fit the players perfectly and Michael Gianitti’s lighting is most effective, especially in conjunction with the sound design by Jill BC DuBoff and Anthony Mattana. This script calls for special effects and the team provides them over and over again.
In just under two hours this ghost of "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" makes mincemeat of its source material and flounders once or twice under the weight that parody brings to the project. If the show was less funny or had a less accomplished set of actors it might not work, but for the moment it is a delightful piece of fluff, perfect for a summer evening. Having the first crack at something this special certainly makes the theatrical experience into something larger and finer than usual.
The Whore and Mr. Moore plays at the Dorset Playhouse, located at 104 Cheney Road in Dorset, Vermont, through August 11. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-867-2223 or find them on line at www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.