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May 24-30, 2006

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'String of Pearls'

Jeanine Brown Photography
Connections: A common bond links the lives of (from left) Nancy Sauder, Shannon Stowe, Raegena Raymond and Lisa Mallette in 'A String of Pearls.'

Strung Together

One necklace binds many lives in 'String of Pearls' at City Lights

By Marianne Messina


THE STRING OF PEARLS arrives on the scene to a bell-clear strum of acoustic guitar—like an epiphany—in the City Lights Theater Company production of Michele Lowe's String of Pearls. Over the course of the play, the pearls are given to a wife from a husband as a token of the sex act that invigorated their marriage, passed down from mother to daughter, stolen from a corpse by a funeral parlor attendant and tossed into the Hudson River to end up inside the catch of a vacationing fisherman (whose mother-in-law thinks they're fake). Who suspected pearls had such eventful lives?

Four actresses and a ton of costume changes take us through the various characters who come in contact with the pearls, starting with the 74-year-old grandmother Beth (Nancy Sauder) who first received them in the '60s. On a bare but abstractly curvaceous stage set, women—cleaning women to careerists—talk frankly about their sex lives and the men in them. Some of the scenes are miniskits; others are presented as narratives, even ensemble narratives, which on occasion are quite humorous (not to mention musical).

In fact, characters sometimes narrate even when the person they are talking about is standing right next to them. Occasionally, this technique leaves the play feeling a bit coldblooded. For example, picture a pickup scene at a bar: the shy, gravedigging lesbian Cindy (Raegena Raymond) is about to get lucky with the woman of her dreams (Beth), and instead of enacting the hesitant approach, the happy connection, the characters stand side by side narrating their respective versions of the story, a mating dance mediated by the audience. In this loose and fragmented form, keeping names and characters straight can get rough. On the plus side, the piecemeal form gives each scene the opportunity for a little punch line, which can be funny or poignant or provide ingenious links between the pearls' various stops on their circuitous route.

Each actor in this production comes up with memorable characters. A variety of Shannon Stowe's women—prissy and slovenly; catty and bubbly with accents Irish to New Yorkish—strike gold, especially her all-too-brief role as the snide, cigarette-sucking drudge who answers a mother's worried phone questions about her daughter with "I have to go, my program is on." Lisa Mallette creates a brilliantly frumpy, stoop-shouldered mortuary attendant (Kyle), her depressed apathy both familiar and creepy. Raymond comes out strong as the "cultured white trash" swimming-pool mom Cheryle, and as the impeccably coutured, "judgmental," "killjoy" mother Gloria: "Your daughter dresses like a tramp," she tells her daughter. "Your son dresses like a fairy."

The play provides a fuguelike weave of voices and repeated themes as characters tell their stories against other characters' tellings, up to three or four talking at once like an orchestra. Sometimes the narratives border on performance poetry, or just plain poetry, as in the very lovely "divorced white witches" sequence about a ladies' skinny-dipping ritual: "Soon the men came, dozens of them, silent and staring. They kissed our breasts, and we turned them into fireflies. ... Then we went back to our empty houses." Lyrical and sorrowful taken together, the play remains light, and humor pops out even in the darkest moments.


String of Pearls, a City Lights Theater Company Production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2 or 7pm through June 18 at City Lights, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$35. (408.295.4200)


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