Victorian society, with all its concern for decorum and civility, is above all a freak show in Joan Schenkar's "Signs of Life." And it is women who are treated as the freaks.
The men in this strange feminist drama repress the females in their lives, exploit them, experiment on them and generally treat them with the morbid curiosity of little boys in the habit of plucking the wings from butterflies.
Horizons has certainly taken on a considerable challenge by opening its new season at the Grace Episcopal Church with this offbeat work. I would like to say it represents a welcome stretch for the group, which took some impressive leaps forward last season. But this time, I fear, Horizons has leapt smack up against a near-impenetrable script.
Strewn with interlocking symbolism and decked with an array of organic imagery drawn from the female anatomy, "Signs of Life" does not naturally spring to life on a stage. Its values are more literary than dramatic. The play's action is scant indeed. Instead, Schenkar seems to want to explore the psychological ties that link her four major characters. Short of plucking names from a hat, she couldn't have come up with a more disparate group.
The distaff side is represented by Jane Merritt (Barbara Klein), a monstrously shaped sideshow attraction known as The Elephant Woman; and Alice James (Carole Myers), the bedridden sister of novelist Henry James who, between nervous fits, scribbles away madly in her diary. If both women are oddities, Schenkar seems to attribute much of their victimization to the men in their life: the scalpel-happy Dr. Simon Sloper (Nick Olcott), who has a reckless confidence in his medical expertise (he proudly refers to one of his knives as "the uterine guillotine . . . to separate the female organs from their moorings"); and James himself (Martin Goldsmith), who regards his sister as an unsightly nuisance, but just may envy her literary skills.
Periodically the men meet over tea to discuss what they consider the aberrant behavior of the two women. Then, raising their china cups genteelly, they propose a toast over a table neatly stocked with scones and pots of jam: "To the ladies!" What a curiously befuddled sex, says the smug look in their eyes. That they are quite possibly responsible for the befuddlement does not occur to them.
Not much else in this drama, however, presents itself so obviously. Jane Merritt and Alice James seem to stand for two aspects of womanhood -- the body and the soul. But Schenkar is not one for simple truths. Indeed, she multiplies the comparisons and contrasts, piles ironies upon ironies and invents so many biographical coincidences as to leave you panting for some explanatory footnotes. The play's multiple scenes -- set in Alice's bedroom, an asylum, a hospital and P.T. Barnum's American Museum -- endlessly chew over variations on the themes of frustration and injustice.
Barnum -- perhaps the greatest exploiter of all times ("I have to show one half of the world to the other half," he boasts) -- presides over "Signs of Life" as a barker, and I suspect the play would be more exciting, although no more comprehensible, if it were presented as some kind of phantasmagoria unfolding under the Big Top. Director Leslie Bravman Jacobson points the Horizons production in that direction, but only tentatively. For the most part, she and her cast want to induce understanding and even sympathy for these cursedly complex creatures, and the production bogs down fairly quickly in a thicket of motivations and countermotivations.
You might be able to make a case for "Signs of Life" as a surrealistic Victorian tea party, with blood pouring from the teapot and bits of bones turning up in the muffins (the images are Schenkar's). But I'm not sure you can make rational sense of it. By trying to do so, Horizons adds convolutions of its own to an already confusing play. CAPTION: Picture, Nick Olcott and Martin Goldsmith in "Signs of Life." Copyright (c) 1984 by D. Kathleen Wright