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FEELING THE HEAT
STRONG WRITING, ACTING FAN EMOTIONAL FLAMES IN 'WOMEN ON FIRE'

REVIEW **

WHAT: "Women on Fire"

WHEN: Through Nov. 27

WHERE: O'Connell & Company, the Caberet in the Square Theatre, 4476 Main St., Amherst.

TICKETS: $17 to $22

INFO: 839-3949

This week, O'Connell & Company gives Irene O'Garden's Lucille Lortel Award-nominated play, "Women on Fire," its Western New York premiere. The show is comprised of 12 monologues. It is an exploration of character, in compact studies. Themes of heat, combustion and flames are consistently evoked in the writing.

One actress originally performed the play, which was nominated in 2002 in the category of Best Solo Show. O'Connell & Company has mounted the show with three actresses -- Mary Kate O'Connell, Pamela Rose Mangus and Loraine O'Donnell-Gray -- juggling the 12 vastly different roles.

The performers have the responsibility of taking the audience along with them into the heart of what are essentially 12 short stories. The vignettes are presented in different settings -- such as a cell phone conversation, in a confessional booth or at a therapist's office.

It is a testament to the strength of the writing that the audience is so comfortable in the role of eavesdropper. There are no gaps in our ability to imagine the other side of the conversation.

Instead of dates, times and settings, the playbill simply offers a list of the characters' first names, ideological "fire" association, occupation and in some cases a geographical origin or location.

While the characters' occupations may not seem instantly universal (ad exec, political activist/gardener), the themes that emerge are. Hope, regret, pride, love and strength are revealed, in no particular order and with a very nonjudgmental air.

O'Connell gives voice and body to four of the characters. Her portrayal of "Miriam, incinerator, Westchester County clotheshorse" offers a thought-provoking take on shopping. As with other monologues in the piece, the character expresses both hope and sadness. She blithely describes shopping as a substitute for sex ("shopping O!"), as well as a source of basic emotions. Shopping fulfills her longing for recognition and attention, unlike her husband.

Mangus as "Lydia, smolder, Southern matron" speaks her monologue into a tape recorder, seemingly a suicide note on cassette. It is directed to her daughter, and it reveals difficult choices she made about parenting. At the same time, she dissects her own character, flaws not excluded. The most difficult piece to watch may be that in which O'Donnell-Gray, as "Rita, campfire, musician," talks about terminating a pregnancy. The lingering feeling of the monologue is an unusual take on the subject: Rita expresses a lasting support of her decision and an abiding love for her body's ability to create life.

Roger Paolini has directed the show with a sensitive hand. The spare set and simple costumes by O'Connell and O'Donnell-Gray also help the performers -- and the words they speak -- to carry their meaning. Standing, kneeling on simple black forms, moving a chair or a cushion, doffing or donning a scarf or hat, the performers quite effectively evoke feeling and mood.

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