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Cristina Carlisi in Martha at the Whitefire Theatre (Photo by Charles Dougherty)
Cristina Carlisi in Martha at the Whitefire Theatre (Photo by Charles Dougherty)

Martha

Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Whitefire Theatre
Through May 28

RECOMMENDED

Modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham has become an almost mythical figure. She was remarkably prolific, creating 181 dances over the course of her career and dancing into her 70s (though sometimes she lurched a bit during her later years). There was a touch of mysticism about her and her work, as she portrayed such figures from Greek mythology as Phedre, Jocasta (in Night Journey), Circe, Hecuba (in Cortege of Eagles) and Medea. And she also depicted famous women, from Emily Dickinson (in Letter to the World) to frontier women (in Frontier and Appalachian Spring) to the Virgin Mary in Primitive Mysteries.

The script, by Ellen Melaver, is impressionistic rather than literal. It examines Graham’s early years studying with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, as well as her relationship with her friend, mentor and music director, Louis Horst. It also looks at her sometimes vituperative relations with both her critics and her leading men, including Bertram Ross and Erick Hawkins, whom she reluctantly but ecstatically married, only to have the marriage fail after a number of years. She was a passionate egotist: demanding, outspoken, imperious and sharp-tongued. She possessed a wicked wit and sense of humor.

The piece, cast as a late-night encounter with friends, co-workers and critics, is set in a dance studio in her later years. At the time, there was much hue and cry urging her to cease dancing, get off the stage, give younger dancers a chance, and concentrate on choreography — which held little charm for her. As she once said, she became a choreographer almost accidentally, because she wanted to create roles for herself. And when she finally was forced to give her famous roles to younger dancers, she resented them bitterly and made their lives miserable even as she taught them how to do them. When at last she could no longer dance, her purpose in life was gone, and she retreated into alcoholism (which is only hinted at here).

As one who saw Graham and her company in her later years, when she continued to dance even when she could barely walk, I can vouch for the fact that the magic and charisma were still compelling despite her failing powers. I was skeptical of the notion that any modern performer could capture her essence. But Cristina Carlisi is startlingly successful in painting a credible, multi-layered portrait of a remarkable woman. Carlisi has done her homework well, and continually recreates iconic moments from Graham’s career, or from the remarkable photographs by Barbara Morgan, Martha Swope and others.

Carlisi doesn’t really look or sound much like Martha, but she evokes her splendidly. Since she is a dancer as well as an actor, she is able to perform excerpts from Graham’s dances, including Primitive Mysteries, Appalachian Spring, and Letter to the World. And she captures Graham’s fascination with the use of fabrics in creative ways.

All in all, this is a worthy tribute to a true original and a courageous groundbreaker whom some called the Picasso of the Dance.

Stewart J. Zully provides capable direction, and Candice Cain supplies the handsome, authentic looking costumes.

 

The Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks. Sun., 7:30 p.m. www.marthasoloplay.brownpapertickets.com or (818) 990-2324. Running time: One hour and 5 minutes, with no intermission.

 

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