Denial Works 

The Memory of Water humorously examines the ways people justify their own actions

You invent these versions of me and I don't recognize myself," the dead woman in the sparkly blue dress tells her daughter. It's an apt summation of the central question of Shelagh Stephenson's The Memory of Water, the tartly funny examination of family and memory now playing at TheatreFIRST. One dead mother, three living daughters, and two hapless male companions wrangle with their expectations and disappointments as they try to untangle the knotty skein of memories, often wildly conflicting, that arise when they are brought together for a few bitterly cold days on the English coast.

Stephenson is interested in the versions we create of ourselves and others, the way we remember what has happened to us, what slights we have suffered, and whether we've been well-enough loved or not. The memories pile up here, a tapestry of varied stories about the same events -- which sister was accidentally left behind at the beach, how one met her husband, what a father knew about a family scandal. After a while it's hard to say whether any of the characters really know what's going on, no matter how assured they seem. "All memories are false, yours in particular," Mary tells her sister Teresa. We're faced with an inescapable question: what stories do we tell ourselves to avoid responsibility for our failures and the pain we have caused others? Stated that way it sounds like a grim little play, but it's not at all -- there's a lot of laughter, plus humor of the sort that comes from recognizing that something is true.

This production is full of such surprises, onstage and off. It's a little unbelievable, for example, that this is Stephenson's first stage play, so assured and deft is the writing. It's also a real treat to see such a high quality of work in a low-budget production presented at a YWCA -- but then, we are fortunate in the East Bay to have several companies that accomplish a lot with very limited resources. On an emotional level, it's surprising how many of Stephenson's lines hit home, and with what precision. When Vi (the elegant Phoebe Moyer) says "I'm proud of you, but you're ashamed of me" to her daughter Mary (the "successful" one), there is a painful truth to the line. It's an unsparing look at the complex relationship between mothers and children.

Araxi Djian plays sharply witty Mary, the sister who became a doctor and made something of herself -- or was it her family that made something of her? As the play unfolds we learn that Mary was the nexus of her mother's aspirations, sometimes to the detriment of the other two sisters -- and that, as a result, she has the hardest personal journey to make. The transition is gradual and played with supreme control, even as we discover Mary's surprising sacrifices. Djian contrasts well with Cynthia Bassham as Teresa the "good" sister, the one who came home to take care of her ailing mother, the one determined to handle the funeral details in an organized, dispassionate manner. Of course, organized and dispassionate go out the window almost immediately, and Teresa soon ends up perilously close to the edge. She is an emotional land mine waiting to be stepped on.

Finally, there's little sister Catherine (the vividly goofy Lizzie Calogero), who lets us know immediately that she's already been stepped on, and often. From the moment she arrives in her acid-green vinyl pants and clunky shoes, Catherine is a piece of work -- fast-talking, doped to the gills, and pathetically needy in a way that threatens to absorb everyone else. Spending money she hasn't got, trying to hold on to the latest in a long string of squirming boyfriends, and plagued by an unidentified abdominal pain ("it's my ovaries!" she insists as she repeatedly bares her stomach), Catherine has long suspected that she was the runt of the litter, and for that she will make someone pay.

They're a messy lot, these sisters, and we know them all well. Watching them get to know each other in a new, more honest fashion is the great pleasure of this play, which manages under Clive Chafer's direction to be sad without being maudlin, uplifting without being saccharine.

It's hard to imagine a show much different from The Memory of Water than The Scarlet Pimpernel, now being lavished on the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts by the Diablo Light Opera Company. True, both shows are comedies at heart and feature actors playing Brits but, beyond that, any similarity ends. Memory is a small, contained story about a few people dealing with one death, presented with a minimum of frippery, whereas Pimpernel is a musical circus hurtling wildly through the French Revolution and dripping with elaborate costumes, schemes, and guillotines. Based on the novel of the same name, The Scarlet Pimpernel features a dashing hero, a beautiful-yet-conflicted heroine, and a smoldering villain, all singing their hearts out in a rather silly story that pits a pack of butterfly-chasing English nobles against the weight of Robespierre and his Terror.

Usually shows that feature a beheading ten minutes into the first act don't qualify as light entertainment, but Pimpernel moves so fast it's hard to take the bloodshed seriously, what with all the derring-do, squishy love songs, and major feathered hats straight out of a 1970s blaxploitation film. Pimpernel leaves an audience breathless with its scope and audacity, while sidestepping any serious examination of the history it touches ever so lightly on its willy-nilly course.

Keith Barlow is a treat as Sir Percy Blakeney, moving easily between ultra-masculine swashbuckler and ninnyish fop ("I shall wear my ruby satin to the royal ball," he purrs, "because it shimmers"). One of the most wonderfully campy moments is his "The Creation of Man," where he instructs his men to dress to the nines in an attempt to deflect prying questions about why they're sailing off to France all the time. "So strike a pose/someone needs to bear the weight of those welted clothes/that's why the good Lord created men!" he sings as his associates work their fluorescent-animal-print frock coats.

Equally impressive is Lane McKenna as the spicy Marguerite St. Just, who does not, unfortunately, have nearly as wide and wacky a role, or as much time onstage. When she is on, though, can she ever sing, especially in a Piaf-ishly growly French. Marguerite's duets with Blakeney are lovely enough to forgive the rather uninspired lyrics, while her unresolved situation with the glowering, manipulative Chauvelin singes the stage. Dave Miailovich as Chauvelin has his own dark allure; when he sings "Where Is the Girl" in an attempt to woo back Marguerite, it's almost possible to forget that this is a man who has made a deal with the Devil, remorselessly feeding victims to Madame Guillotine in return for power within the new regime and the chance to avenge a bitter childhood.

As well as the great singing and catchy music, audiences get serious visual bang for the buck. Carol Edlinger's costumes are splendid, from the opening number where the dancers twirl around in hot pink wigs and dresses that make them look like animated valentines, to the gold-on-white finery of the Royal Ball. It's clear that a lot of planning and effort went into the visual aspects of the show, especially notable in the clever design of the set of Percy's schooner and the angular pattern of lights in the courtyard of the Bastille. Unlike Water, Pimpernel is not a show that takes to deep probing, but it's gorgeous. Just don't stop to think too long about the implications of haute couture saving the day against mob hysteria, or you'll miss the point of this frothy confection.

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