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Arts & Entertainment Preview | October 2001 | Sponsored by Chrysler


by John Istel

Swedish Nightingale

Louise Pitre

Louise Pitre, in Mamma Mia

"Like most people, when I heard they were making a musical called Mamma Mia, based on the songs of ABBA, I pictured some terrible, tacky revue," says Louise Pitre, the award-winning Canadian actress and singer. Pitre discovered how wrong she was when she was cast in the title role for the mega-musical's North American tour. "Director Phyllida Lloyd wasn't looking for the typical musical-theater approach to acting; she treats this as a Shakespearean play, for God's sake." That approach, combined with Pitre's earthy alto, lends just the right amount of weight to this fluffernutter phenomenon. Mamma Mia takes a soap dish of a story and cleverly sews it tight with a string of twenty-two songs by Bennie Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the male half of the 1970s Swedish pop group. Pitre plays Donna, a single mother whose daughter, Sophie, is getting married. Sophie wants to know who her father is, and she invites three likely candidates to the ceremony, much to her mother's horror. The show opens on Broadway this month, already having broken sales records in London and across this continent. "It's mind-blowing," says Pitre. "I've never played to such packed houses. People just stand up with the most amazing, ridiculous smiles and yell like they're at some sporting event." Clearly, ABBA's fans are flocking, but Pitre thinks she knows another reason for the show's success. "Part of the musical's appeal is that it has a woman in her forties as the main character. It's like real life. Not everybody's pretty and sweet with a little soprano voice and in love all the time," she says. "That's not me. I can sing lower than most guys I know."

The Company of Women

Annie Weisman, a San Diego native, saw her first play produced by the California Young Playwrights Project at Old Globe Theatre about ten years ago. She was seventeen. This summer, she returned to her hometown as one of the country's most promising young playwrights to watch her acerbic comedy about southern California cheerleaders, Be Aggressive, debut at the La Jolla Playhouse. In October, Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory cashes in on its commission to Weisman when it opens its Second Stage season with the world premiere of Weisman's Hold Please. Her script reads like a cross between Sex in the City and a work by Neil LaBute, and shows off Weisman's trademark ear for the vernacular of the most recent generation to enter the American workforce. In the edgy comedy, four female "Reception Technicians" in a faceless corporation, although of various ages and experiences, compete for everything from the boss's attention to the coffee creamer to the heart-shaped pillow they must hug before expressing feelings during an encounter session. Finally, they're forced to compete in an efficiency test for the single remaining job. One of the unlucky contestants decides to become a hip-hop artist and offers a sample of her "Secretary Rap": "I'll staple you shut like Carni Wilson's belly / Stop your attempt at talkin' like a militant Israeli / I'll turn you over face down and fax you to Japan / Then scan your ass digitally and do it all again." In Weisman's world, even the losers get a last laugh. SCR tops off October, however, with a winner: the world premiere of Nostalgia, a haunting play, set in Wales, by Londoner Lucinda Coxon.

Greek Love

Lately, stages seem glutted by Greek tragedies. Maybe it's because the millennia-old potboilers can compete with murderous Houston moms, adulterous men in positions of power, and other recent lurid news items. In Washington, D.C., two theaters have opened their seasons with Greek epics. Arena Stage offers Agamemnon and His Daughters, with Molly Smith directing Kenneth Cavander's adaptation. Across town, the Shakespeare Theatre celebrates Michael Kahn's fifteenth-anniversary season with the entire Oedipus trilogy, starring Avery Brooks headlining the all-African-American cast. But few recent adaptations have hit the jugular of contemporary culture like Big Love, Charles L. Mee's remarkable revision of Aeschylus's The Suppliants. The original, one of the oldest extant plays in Western civilization, was only the first part of a trilogy. That left the provocative playwright to make up his own ending based on existing fragments and third-party commentary. The story centers on fifty sisters forcibly engaged to marry fifty cousins. The brides-to-be flee into exile, are hunted down by the men, and, when faced with no other options, make a pact to murder their husbands on their wedding night. They all do—save a sole sister who falls for her fiancé. Big Love, reset in present-day Italy, made an audacious debut at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival, in a production, directed by Les Waters, that featured a 1960s pop-laden soundtrack, a bright blue wrestling mat floor, and a wild, flailing physicality that perfectly embodied this epic battle of the sexes. Waters restaged the acclaimed production in Berkeley this spring, and it arrives in mid-October at the Goodman Theatre, in Chicago, before moving on to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in late November.

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John Istel is the editor-in-chief of Stagebill.
Photograph of Louise Pitra: Joan Marcus.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.