Friday, April 8, 2011

I ain't afraid of no 'Ghost-Writer'

Once upon a time in the early 20th century, Franklin Woolsey (Colin Lane), a celebrated writer in the prolix Henry James mode, started dictating his novels to a typist. As in: a cute, young, female typist named Myra (Amy Tribbey). Franklin's pushy wife Vivian (Hollis McCarthy) wasn’t thrilled, but his literary output exploded. Over time, Myra became more of a collaborator than a passive secretary. Then, one day, Woolsey had a fatal heart attack in mid-sentence. Eventually, Myra heard his voice again and resumed typing, determined to finish his last novel.

OK. Such are the bare facts of Michael Hollinger's play, now hitting the stage at Florida Studio Theatre. Beyond these facts, the play poses a multiple choice question: Is Myra (A) nuts (B) committing a conscious fraud (C) continuing her collaboration (D) actually hearing his voice or (E) all of the above …?

For most of the play, an unseen investigator challenges Myra with these questions. That investigator (who represents Woolsey’s unhappy widow who’s trying to quash Myra's posthumous collaboration) seems to lean toward either the nuts or fraud theories. I have my own theory — but damned if Hollinger's play spells it out.

Whose authorial voice is it anyway?

That isn't the point — or the point that Hollinger cares about. Ghost-Writer isn’t a ghost story — or an anti-ghost story. It’s a love story — and an obvious metaphor for the writing process. Myra and Franklin romance the blank page. Their collaboration is better than sex. Granted the reticence of these Ragtime-era characters, it's a slow burn. That smoldering sensibility is what he cares about.

Like James Joyce, Hollinger loves the music of writing — not the words on the page, but the physical act of writing. Ghost-Writer jumps into that music with both feet: the back-and-forth rhythm of dictation and typing; the counterpoint of voice and typewriter. It's a love affair. Maybe with words, maybe between two people, alive or dead, creating words together. The boundary remains fuzzy, but the music is compelling.

Director Kate Alexander gets the music right — the slow, hypnotic, seductive pace Hollinger was going for. Tribbey is fine as the emotional center of the whirlwind: a woman desperately in love with a man who isn't there; the voice of sanity who knows her words sound crazy. Fine performances also from Lane and McCarthy. His dead author character is more like an open question: Is he there or not? Her wounded widow character is an accusation: Are you for real?

A thousand puns rise up like shades. A haunting production. A spirited performance. But let's run like hell past the graveyard and speak plainly ...

Great theater.

See it.

Through June 4
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

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