Berlin, East Germany is a place of the past schoolchildren today probably don’t know existed. Yet, in Lady Lay, it is alive in 1989 and abounding with belief that all can, and will, change. It does: that storied Wall falls—physically and metaphorically ushering communism out of Germany and leaving Marianna (Ellie Nicoll), a morose civil servant at the Office of Unemployment, with a renewed sense that personal freedom—however one defines that—is also possible. But, only at the urging of the incomparable Bob Dylan and his genre-bending music.
Marianna spends her days with a handful of clients, a sad-sack of losers with neuroses seemingly beyond cure, continually instilling in them that they won’t get a job unless they follow the rules (i.e., line up everyday, meet with her, complete the requisite paperwork, etc…). There is a system they must follow. And Germans love systems.
Herr D (Matt Doughert) and Herr K (Edward Nagel) are at opposite ends of their careers—one near retirement, the other just starting real work—but both display an inability to deal with their current predicament. And then there is Frau L (Madeleine Adele). She can’t hold a job because she is constantly ill while Frau M (Aniko Olah) suspects her former employer has blackballed her by writing a bad performance report. Which, of course, goes in her file and cannot be changed. Those are the rules. Frau H (Jennifer Bevan), on the other hand, is a fiery redhead who doesn’t believe in said rules. Or playing nice, which is why she is frequently fired.
Dylan’s music was the sound track to the United States’ 1960’s Civil Rights Movement and a commentary on all the social rest it begot that had people protesting in the streets, dropping LSD, and growing their hair long. So, it’s not much of a stretch that when Marianna hears it on the radio for the first time one morning as she irons work clothes, it sparks a change that has her suddenly cutting work, sleeping in, connecting emotionally with her clients, and sexing an American named Seth (Kevin O’Reilly)—all very “un-German.” To top it off, Dylan (Ron Litman) the man seems to be visiting her himself. In the Flesh. Turning up at the foot of her bed. Sauntering through her office.
Litman, as Dylan, would have you do a double take if you passed by him on the street. So perfect is his gait and the shaky cadence of his warbling voice, the two could be twins. He even meets Marianne’s repeated queries about the deeper meaning of things with the same languid deflection one would imagine the actual Dylan using to dispute his own iconic-ness, which he kinda does when he tells Marianna, “Call me Zimmie.” (Dylan’s birth name is Robert Zimmerman).
Billed as a drama, the show’s undercurrent is funny, playing with stereotypes, especially with the colorless, unambitious drone-like persona attached to Germans, civil servants, the unemployed, office workers, etc…Marianna’s obsession with Dylan, leading her to quote his music at awkward moments, adds levity. But, as Marianna points out, “There was nothing Bob Dylan didn’t say,” so maybe her mentions of mermaids (from her favorite Dylan song “Desolation Row”, are appropriate though ill timed. Of course, Dylan’s songs (including Row and “All Along the Watchtower,” “Hurricane,” to name a few) pepper the whole show, making it enjoyable musically also.
Nicoll, at times, gives stilted deliveries that don’t exactly seem to come from the stoic German character she is playing, Yet, she evolves from a straight-laced, humorless, marm-ish middle-age woman to a considerate, almost loving, human organically. It’s a believable transition, and she proves Marianna both funny and heart-warming right down to the final moments, especially when she aids co-worker Frau Y and levels with her seemingly dictatorial boss Frau F (both played by Amanda Forstrom).
All the Fraus and Herrs—and Seth—are equally strong supporting characters. The cast, except Nicoll and Litman, steps in and out of their roles, often acting almost as a pantomime troupe to Marianna’s thoughts. At the direction of Robert McNamara, they are props, crowds, and a Greek chorus that color the stage—a sparse black plane bedecked with 8 straight-back chairs and an office desk—like a post-Wall Berlin, teeming with hope.
Stylistically, Lady Lay delivers. It is sparse visually but heavy emotionally—backed by a great cast and American-born, Berlin-based playwright Lydia Stryk’s witty writing, which merges the best of Bob Dylan with a focal point in history to remind us of music’s power to not just heal or better a nation, but to define ourselves in ways we never imagined.
SCENA Theatre’s Lady Lay ran October 6 – 10, 2015 as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
Written by Lydia Stryk . Directed by Robert McNamara . Featuring Ellie Nicoll, Ron Litman, Kevin O’Reilly, Aniko Olah, Matt Doughert, Amanda Forstrom, Edward Nagel, Jennifer Bevan, and Madeleine Adele . Production: Production Manager and Properties: Lena Salins . Assistant Director: Alexandra Linn Desaulniers . Star Johnson, Stage Manager; Denise Renee, Sound Designer; Marianna Meadows, Lighting Designer; Tony Starnes, Projection Designer; Cast for Wardrobe, Hair, and Makeup. Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.