Ali in the Family

Originality—it's rare. But you can experience the pleasurably sharp intake of breath it brings by seeing Rinne Groff's Inky and the Talking Band's Black Milk Quartet.

Inky is a neat little noir comedy full of deft twists, acerbic quips, and a lunge at your guts. It juxtaposes a clichéd Upper East Side yuppie couple against their new nanny, Inky—a strange young woman from an unspecified Eastern European country who secretly idolizes Muhammad Ali, reciting his rhymes and boxing like a champ.

Inky is hired into a tense household to care for Barbara and Clay's new baby boy and Barbara's daughter Allie. Clay has mysterious money pressures. Barbara is contemptuous—of Clay, mothering, and nearly everything else.

Black Milk Quartet: destroyed by goddesses
photo: Suzanne Opton
Black Milk Quartet: destroyed by goddesses

Inky insinuates herself into the heart of the family, and develops fierce loyalties. She's a survivor, with a genius for listening. She teaches Barbara to hear and interpret the sound of the baby's breathing. She intuits hidden vibrations between the couple and pieces together Clay's business secrets. When bruises appear on little Allie, Barbara and Clay learn that Inky has been teaching her boxing. Soon the tensions in the household explode into physical combat, and shocking revelations about Inky's past illuminate the dark underside of the couple's oh-so-correct facade.

Emma Griffin directs pungently, with style. The scenes are short and pointed, punctuated by fight-ring bells. The verbal byplay is snappily timed, and the physicality is visceral. Louisa Thompson's luxurious all-white set is the perfect ironic statement on the couple's deeply stained psyches.

Groff's women are compelling. Maria Porter delivers witheringly funny lines as Barbara, believably selfish, brittle, and vulnerable. Though a bit jejune, Mahlon Stewart's Clay is nicely snaky. Maria Striar's Inky, however, is a scream: mangling her English, jabbing at the air with her fists, whooping "I am da king!" She also projects a furtive anxiety and purposeful vigilance that hint at her escape from the abyss. You might wish you knew a bit more about these characters, but Groff has written according to Barbara's favorite gambit, trailing off a suggestive thought with "Dot, dot, dot." The meanings are in the interstices of this terse, highly charged psychodrama.

** Also condensed and charged as well as hauntingly poetic are the short pieces in the Talking Band's Black Milk Quartet. Director Paul Zimet wrote the librettos for these quirky mini-operas, with music for each piece composed by different members of the troupe.

Actaeon, the prologue, dramatizes the Greek myth of the youth who glimpsed the goddess Diana bathing, then was turned into a stag and torn to pieces by his own hunting dogs. His story—the old love and death one—is the theme on which the ensuing dramas spin arresting new variations. Each makes use of a lighted screen through which we can see silhouettes—of real maidens bathing, cutouts of deer fleeing—and a cornucopia of musical effects, from an eight-piece chamber ensemble to ingenious percussion with assorted kitchen implements.

With its dissonant, threatening score by Gina Leishman, the sensuous toilette of Diana, and terrorized puppet deer fleeing on the light screen, Actaeonsets the mood for the passion and madness to come.

Black Milk is the richest of these. While Marcy Jellison as Gwen, a mad housewife automaton, serves her husband and son dinner, a three-part chorus of women in housedresses and beehive hairdos harmonize in a hilarious choral rendition of "Java, Java" to their own pot-and-spoon accompaniment and the sweeping strings and horns of the chamber ensemble (music by Ellen Maddow). Gwen's erotic yearnings are expressed in a lush song to the vegetables in her garden, and, as she writhes in her bed to the thrusts of her imaginary lover, the housewives mesh a symphony of heavy breathing with the musicians' orgasmic crescendos. There is an imagined wedding with long white veil and klezmer moan—and a tragic ending. Jellison is rapturously, touchingly mad.

Equally heartbreaking is Robert Aronson as Snyder in Colored Glasses. He plays an aging bookish bachelor whose tenuous isolation is wrecked by a chance encounter with a beautiful, sensitive young blond. There are several very funny episodes—especially his memory of other children mocking him in grade school, and an outlandish Tristan and Isolde played while Snyder and his adored watch from the balcony. The lush music, by Dan Froot, and lighted screen visions of his loved one bathing in the rippling tide express his unbearable longing and portend his end. It is the satisfying final chord to Actaeon's theme: "I stumbled upon a goddess. She destroyed me."

The odd piece out is Price Slasher, which tells the sleazy story of a love triangle between a rich marketing guy, his stripper wife, and the young hanger-on who is his wife's lover. Accompanied by a lone jazz piano (music by Harry Mann), it's an ugly sequence of tequila, tail, and a knife to the heart. What sets this sequence apart is that these lovers are unlikable, and they actually get laid. The others are touching portrayals of loneliness and love unattainable, leavened with the laughter of recognition—that these folks are not so different from us.

 
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