The first sight we catch, at the beginning of Spirit Tales, is a man and woman staring begrudgingly at one another. From this interaction and the first scene alone we can loosely understand that the play is about relationships created between men and women.
Spirit Tales, written by Leon Levenson and directed by Emily Ann Jablonski, sets out to capture the difficulties men face and the solace they seek in women as a result. But will it ask any riveting questions that dig deep into such fundamental relationships?
Part one opens with Larry, a slouchy, disheveled man, being coaxed by his friend Bob to sign up for a computerized dating service. Bob tries to convince Larry that the perfect woman is waiting for him in the computer’s winding halls of dating services. Already, women are seemingly placed on a pedestal and deemed as saviors for the men in the play.
The play is separated into three parts, Part One: O Sole Mio…the search for love, Part Two: Lilith Returns…the struggle for justice, and lastly Part Three: Drinking from the Blue Lake…the pursuit of wisdom. In each part a woman is placed at the center and takes on the archetype of either a womanly savior, devilish sorceress or wisdom bearer. Such characterizations only lightly graze the subject of how women may have the power to help and heal men. Clearly, the men have a complex, but the specifics of the complex are never fully addressed.
At one point the antihero B.G. or “Big Guy,” an everyday swindler, tells the vixen Lilith: “we are entering an age of death.” Other pessimistic notions come in part three from Mort who considers turning a historically rich and beautiful forest into a commercialized center. Mort is skeptical that the land he and his brother, Arthur, travel through can offer much more than the potential to be commercialized.
Sooleawa enters, our archetypal wisdom bearer, and attempts to shift Arthur and Mort’s attention. Although, even after she offers her individual story and Mort admits to having listened to her story, we are left questioning just how much the men have changed as a result.
Even in part two, our half-hearted heroic character Marty doesn’t realize he is being tossed around by B.G. until Lilith awakens him. Marty’s transformation is minimal at best and we are still left aching for visible transformation from the male characters.
Lilith (Melissa B. Robinson who also plays Auntie Josephine in part one) successfully manages to distinguish between her two characters, from a strictly New York woman to a fiery vixen, albeit she streams a sense of female sexuality through both characters. Three other players had the similar challenge of playing a different character in each part, though the distinctions were less visible. Even as the theme of each part moves from love, justice, to, alas, wisdom, it is unclear how each part pieced together to form a compelling whole.
The play itself does set out to tell tales, but the spirit aspect of each tale is widely defined. It seems fair to say that the women themselves are spirits floating aside the male characters, but the nature of the female spirit is too broad to fully grasp. Whether the men work through their trials is unclear in the end, with or without the presence of female spirits.
Spirit Tales has 4 more performances at Spooky Universe, Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC.