"A PHOENIX Too Frequent," Christopher Fry's 1946 verse drama about a wife who decides to die as a way of honoring the memory of her husband, is a kind of reverse tragedy. The play, set in classical Greece, begins in a tomb as Dynamene and her servant wait for death to take them, and ends 50 minutes later when Dynamene uses her husband's corpse to save the life of a soldier with whom she's just fallen in love.
What The Cabaret's production of Fry's droll little comedy proves is that simple certainly doesn't mean easy when it comes to theater. Fry celebrates life by poking fun at conventional attitudes and hypocrisies, and the tone throughout is decidedly ironical. Solemn traditions which honor the dead over the living, or which prefer Hades to life on earth, or abstinence to indulgence are shown to be self-defeating and barren. The very woman who tries her best to die winds up a bride all over again.
Now, what makes "A Phoenix Too Frequent" so difficult in the first place is the mock-heroic tone. From the very start Fry lets us know that Dynamene is one woman who doesn't know her own mind. For example, she praises her husband -- who would have become provost -- by asking, "where is the cautious voice which made/Balance-sheets sound like Homer and Homer sound/Like balance-sheets?" Later she tells us that "his brain was an ironing-board/For all crumpled indecision." The tone is elegiac, but the language constantly undercuts.
Then, too, Fry toys throughout with Greek drama and myth, using plays like Euripides' "Alcestis" -- about a wife who does die for her husband -- and figures like Orpheus and Eurydice as backdrop for his deflated tale of the woman who just can't stop herself from living. And, to top it all off, his satirical, mock-heroic drama is written in blank verse.
Why Valerie Bistany chose "A Phoenix Too Frequent" for her professional directorial debut is anyone's guess. Although she blocks the play well enough, this production simply doesn't have the tongue-in-cheek tone without which it tends to seem like a lighter moment in "Quo Vadis" or "The Robe." It all seems so simple, and yet, as with Oscar Wilde, tone proves devilishly tricky to establish.
Of the three performers in the play, only Mary Loftus, as Doto, Dynamene's servant, succeeds, and that's because, one suspects, hers is the comic character, the foil to both Dynamene, played by Jenipher Gurney, and Chromis, played by Michael Karr. Gurney and Karr, in the two serious parts, never quite suggest an awareness of their own hypocrisy and posing. It's difficult to poke fun at conventions which are themselves being honored by the style of performance.
Gurney, and to a lesser extent, Karr, need to have more fun with their characters and with Fry's kooky lines. Why is it that when Dynamene explains that she calls her soldier "Chromis" "because it has a bread-like sound," no one in the audience laughed? No one chuckled when she refered to "the extremely complicated gods," or when, tipsy after wine, she said, "The tomb's going round"?
All too often deliciously bizarre lines drop like sinkers because they're rushed and slurred, or because Bistany hasn't quite elicited the mock-heroic. What Gurney and Karr need to appreciate more fully is the zaniness of the situation: their romance blossoms in a mausoleum, right next to the deceased, and they play it like Romeo and Juliet (whose lives end in a mausoleum, right next to the deceased).
There are, of course, some fine moments. Early on when Doto gets drunk and flops about the stage, we can clearly see that it's life, not death, that's being celebrated. Gurney and Karr have a nice, intimate moment together when they first realize they're in love, and Gurney does a fine job transforming herself from widow to lover. But these moments are, as they say, too few and far between.
"A Phoenix Too Frequent" continues at The Cabaret, 255 Franklin St., Thursday through Saturday, until June 3rd.