Ken Tesoriere would like to introduce us to some women he knows. I'm not sure that he enjoys their company, but they haunt him. They are troubled women all, and perhaps too self-aware for their own good.
Tesoriere wants us to meet them, but he doesn't necessarily want us to help them. He just craves some company as a psychological voyeur.
Playwright and director Tesoriere has revived Coyote Ramblers Performing Artists, last seen here in the 1990s, and his first mainstage production upon his return to Tucson is called American Album, Volume One (Women on the Verge). It's an album in the sense that these are living snapshots presented for our inspection with no commentary or context beyond what we can guess from the pictures themselves. They are three short plays, each about a woman with deep, deep problems.
The first, longest and most intentionally ambiguous of the works is called Hot-Wired Highways. (I know this because I have a press release; if the printed program included a sheet detailing the specific cast for each play, it slipped out of mine.) In it, a youngish woman (proud that she still looks 25, at least through her own beer-bleary eyes) hits the road and slips into as many identities as she does cars.
The woman--she goes by a number of names and can't keep them straight--is sort of the trailer-trash edition of Blanche DuBois, always depending on the kindness of strangers, yet none too free with kindnesses of her own. She'll hitch a ride whichever way the traffic takes her, and persuades herself that she's always in control, even in the most degrading situations. She tells horrible stories about a childhood of abandonment and incest, tossing off the tales as if the misadventures were always her idea, and she savored every sordid minute.
But then, how many of these stories are true? She is a highly unreliable narrator of her own life, and that's a method of self-preservation, if nothing else. Neither she nor Tesoriere will reveal who she really is, assuming anything "real" remains of her.
If there is a flaw in this script, it is that it's all journey, with hardly a departure point and no arrival. The one-act play simply stops rather than concludes, and although it stops with a telling metaphor, there's no resolution, not even a hint that there may be a resolution in the future. But if I understand Tesoriere's intentions, he sees this as no flaw at all; he just wants to serve us this raw chunk of a life, and let us chew it over and spit it out.
The woman is played by Tucson newcomer Melissa Kiger with all the necessary bitter bravado. I could question some of Kiger's choices, but it's very hard to tell her choices from the character's. When she laughs, for instance, it's always abrupt and insincere. Is this because Kiger doesn't have an effective stage laugh, or is it because the woman she plays is always forcing it, faking it? Let's give Kiger the benefit of the doubt.
In the second play, Time, an obsessive-compulsive woman named Cleo (the stately Maxine Gillespie) prepares for bed with great care and method. She continually smoothes out her bedsheet, arranges and rearranges the objects on her nightstand down to the millimeter, and struggles to find the correct position for sleeping. Periodically, her thoughts stray from her immediate obsessions and literally leap and roll around the room in the form of the beautiful dancer-choreographer M.J. Richardson. Audience members lulled into a stupor by the repetitive rhythms of this wordless piece might not catch the suggestion in the end that there may be hope for Cleo after all. (Watch what she doesn't do as much as what she does, and listen for the change in music.)
Is there hope for Lena, the young wife who has barely survived a brutal abduction and multiple rape, in Lena's Secret Garden? Her husband (played steadily by Clay Utley) vacillates between pretending that everything is normal again and gently trying to draw out details of the ordeal. Lena, meanwhile, is nearly catatonic. Yet her mind is not vacant; the play's second half is a near-exact repeat of its first, but now with Lena giving voice to roiling thoughts her husband cannot hear and perhaps would not understand.
The always superb Marissa Garcia plays Lena with heartbreaking longing, distraction and bitterness. Tesoriere's writing leaves Lena's fate up in the air; I'd be inclined to suspect the worst, but Tesoriere the director and particularly Garcia ultimately imply that there may be hope for her after all, depending on how she and we interpret the central metaphor of grafting the branches of a rose bush.
Perhaps it's only false hope. Theater is full of it, more in its real-life production and box-office struggles than in what appears on stage. Tesoriere generally resists making hope for his characters explicit, and absolutely refuses to lay out a line of neat little answers. This will make it difficult for Coyote Ramblers to attract an audience of people who just want to be entertained. Yet we need a troupe like this that fearlessly embraces uncertainty.