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Identity Crises 

An experimental play links 17 short scenes to tell the story of a mysterious missing woman

Wednesday, Aug 7 2002
Most of us have seen a loved one or close friend act completely out of character -- Ozzy Osbourne making it through an entire episode of The Osbournes without profanities, for example. It makes you wonder how well you can really know someone, a conundrum that concerned British playwright Martin Crimp so much that he wrote a play about it. His experimental 1997 work Attempts on Her Life, making its West Coast premiere with a foolsFURY production directed by Ben Yalom, ponders this philosophical quandary.

A radical example of avant-garde theater, the play eschews both a plot and a central character to which the audience can emotionally connect. In 17 short, dramatically linked scenes, written to be purposely vague, the ensemble cast sets about determining the identity of a missing person or thing, known alternately as Anne, Anya, or Annie. It's an ideal play for those with short attention spans. Crimp's script leaves much to the imagination, providing no guidelines for settings, props, or the number of actors. Dialogue is similarly open-ended and not restricted to specific characters.

While such artistic autonomy is refreshing, it also poses a challenge to a director. Yalom and his company feel up to the task. "The wonderful thing about this piece is that every little segment needs to be created fully," he explains. "We as a group would create each scene, and what that allows is a more organic process."

Attempts opens with a lengthy voice-over of a day's worth of answering-machine messages, which acts as a table of contents for the forthcoming vignettes. Zipping through two dance numbers, an interrogation, an interview with Annie's parents, a movie pitch meeting in Hollywood, and a cocktail party (among other scenarios) can be disorienting. But taken together the quick-change scenes create "a collage representing the identity of this mysterious woman and a collage of the ways in which we learn about the world," explains Yalom. Whether Anne is a world traveler, terrorist, nuclear physicist, porn star, or artist isn't the point. (Her identity is so fluid, in fact, that she may not even be human; at times, she's a car or a machine.) "Part of what the playwright is doing is trying to figure out this quest for identity, because there are so many variations on who a person might be."

Attempts on Her Life is a play of ideas and might be frustrating for some audiences, but Yalom insists it's both accessible and relevant. "It's more like going to an art exhibit than a traditional play, in that it doesn't tell a narrative. You need to go into it open as you would into a gallery and let each piece get under your skin instead of trying to find the story."

About The Author

Lisa Hom


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