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Theater Review:

"TATTOO GIRL," cobalt ensemble theatre at The Viaduct

BY LUCIA MAURO

Nestled in Naomi Iizuka’s 1994 play, "Tattoo Girl," is the story of ancient Christian martyr Perpetua, who was so committed to her faith that she ecstatically welcomed her impending death of being mauled by wild beasts (which, as legend has it, refused to devour her). Perpetua is also at the heart of Donald Barthelme’s 1972 short story, which loosely inspired Iizuka’s experimental one-act, currently being staged by cobalt ensemble theater at The Viaduct.

But the off-key trumpet playing Perpetua in "Tattoo Girl" – who is not so definitive about her beliefs -- staves off self-destructive forces of a metaphoric nature. The flawed heroine, bored with her middle-class life, leaves her dull and needy nameless husband and perceptive young son Peter to go out into the world and find meaning in her life. This self-consciously quirky 75-minute play, filled with loopy characters and psycho-babble, really doesn’t have anything new to say. Nor does it look at age-old issues (like what constitutes a productive or fulfilling life) in a boldly pointed and relevant way.

In fact, Iizuka appears to be more in love with the work’s forced weirdness, including Perpetua’s quest to be "Olympic" – embodied in her fixation on championship Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci. The title character, Moira, a party girl with a tattoo of French World War I tactician-hero Ferdinand Foch on her back, also undergoes a few shaky life lessons (like leaving her Iowa farmer-husband and taking her brood of kids with her back to New York City). Dashed hopes abound.

Meanwhile, Perpetua’s husband tries to find himself by traveling the globe, neglecting the introverted Peter. The nauseating self-absorption – oddly framed against personal sacrifice – swirls with meteoric force around this sketch of a play. The key message of how we can let life pass us by without finding inner peace and wonder if we’ve served any grand purpose quite simplistically hits us over the head while continuing to point us toward an inherently – and annoyingly -- self-centered place.

Most remarkable, however, is Shade Murray’s electrifying direction, teamed with movement director Birgitta Ford Victorson, who guides the ensemble into mesmerizing formations that subtly reveal chaos and self-doubt better than the playwright. (Victorson also delivers a cutting performance of a washed-up Comaneci.) A wildly talented and uninhibited ensemble is capable of filling in "Tattoo Girl’s" shallow blanks with a tireless synergy and generosity of spirit.

Laura Bailey carries the story as she grounds the morally wavering Perpetua in a cautious curiosity. The stunning Joey Honsa is her tough-and-tender counterpart as the title character who simultaneously craves family-oriented stability and limitless freedom from commitments. Other excellent performances include Mierka Girten as battle-hound Foch and Aaron Cedolia in the dual role of Perpetua’s imaginary lover and the Tattoo Girl’s insensitive husband.

This production is stylishly accented by a top-notch design team, including Lynne Koscielnick’s red-painted photo-gallery set around which the ensemble soars on rolling wrought-iron ladders; Darin Keesing’s photographic lighting; Cecil Averet’s sensuous sound design; and Michelle Lynette Bush’s chic and sleek costumes.

But take away cobalt ensemble theatre’s clever and sexy production elements, and Iizuka’s story rings shallow. "Tattoo Girl" is not so much a modern dark-allegorical comedy as an excuse to gather together cloyingly trendy characters whining about their meaningless lives•.

cobalt ensemble theatre’s production of "Tattoo Girl" runs through June 22 at The Viaduct, 3111 N. Western Ave. Tickets: $15-$18. Call 312-458-9182 or log onto www.cobaltensemble.org.

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