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A Lord of the Flies acted by women feels fresh

Wednesday, Oct 20 2004
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William Golding's first novel, Lord of the Flies, tells the horrid little story of boys from an English boarding school whose plane crashes on a remote island without parents or schoolmasters. Woman's Will is a company of East Bay women who produce all-female Shakespeare. Its members tend to put as many men onstage as Golding did women in this novel. Their production of Flies involves only one man, who for most of the show slumps on the floor as an unconscious paratrooper. "Many people have postulated that if the island in Flies had been populated by girls, the outcome would have been different," writes director Erin Merritt in her program notes, on her vision of women in all the schoolboy roles. "We disagree. Girls may have a different style about them, but they are as subject to human nature as boys are."

This twist is impressive. Golding's novel shows how civilized boys become savages; it's a howl of rage against bullies; and it squints skeptically at the idea of democracy growing in a vacuum. Merritt has mounted it as a conscious protest against the Iraq War. For a group of Berkeley women to criticize President Bush by loading so much anger onto the heads of white English males would be an easy, almost natural move -- but Merritt doesn't care about easy.

The novel starts when a plane full of uniformed teenagers from different English schools crash-lands on an island during World War II. A charismatic blond boy, Ralph, takes natural charge, but his nerdy assistant, Piggy, irritates a group of athletic choirboys. After a struggle for control over democratic "meetings," the choir prefect, Jack, leads the rowdier kids into the hills, where they turn into a band of face-painted, spear-toting guerrillas. What would have been no more than a struggle for schoolyard dominance in England becomes a reflection of British colonialism.

Merritt's show is unpretentious but potent. On a plain stage in Berkeley's Eighth Street Studios, with simple, honest acting, the cast re-creates the novel in most of its essential details. Jennifer Dean does balanced work as Ralph, glum with intelligent worry over what might happen to the other kids. Jenny Debevec is a fiery, challenging Jack, who argues with Ralph just to hear his voice above anyone else's. And Lizzie Calogero's Piggy is beautifully vivid: You can see not just his hard-breathing indignation, but also his doomed suburban insistence on rules of democratic order, which amuse and annoy the more aristocratic boys. Poor Piggy is lumpish, sour, put-upon, noisy. When they steal his glasses to start a fire, he hollers, "Excuse me! Cahn't see nothin'! Those are moi glahsses!" He doesn't do a lot of work, but he's more than happy to scold the other boys when they go wrong. Calogero makes him whiny and unlikable, though he voices England's (and America's) literal ideals of equality.

The three acts of Nigel Williams' adaptation warm up slowly, like a smoldering log; Merritt paces them well. Each act sustains the schoolboy anger (and the audience's attention) even when the story falls slack. Amanda Melton's lights and Seven Lew's sound help cast a subtle spell: The start of the play feels eerie and placid, with lazy sunlight and the sound of lapping waves, but when the disgruntled choirboys start to imagine a faceless beast in the hills (actually the unconscious paratrooper), their fall from half-civilized innocence into chanting savagery is rhythmic and compelling.

The only false notes come at the very end, when a British pilot discovers the boys and tries to learn what happened. Wendell H. Wilson is just not as convincing in a British-officer role as he is as the mysterious paratrooper. But the classroom-proven power of Golding's story, overall, comes through terrifically well, and with a cast as solid as this there's no reason to wish for boys instead of girls. (After a minute, it really doesn't matter.) Debevec's performance as a pissed-off bully is neither especially masculine nor feminine, and people with a fetish for schoolgirl uniforms should steal a look at Dean in baggy shorts and a tie. Golding's criticism translates easily from boys to girls, from the British Empire to America; Woman's Will doesn't have to tinker with a single line to make the play feel up-to-date.

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