Painted Snake in a Painted Chair

As performed by The Talking Band, now in its 29th season, "Painted Snake in a Painted Chair" is a haunting production of a complex play. Playwright Ellen Maddow--one of the troupe's founding members--has created a fractured narrative, replete with elliptical poems that are sung by one or more members of the cast. At the end, many mysteries of this strange tale are resolved, while others remain.

The plot involves five singular people who have, over the years, become a surrogate family. They meet at the house of Nicolette "Nikki" La Rue for occasional dinners, which are preceded by the singing of ritualistic songs. A brief prologue introduces all the characters, who repeatedly utter phrases representing their respective professions: Nikki (Diane Beckett) is a dressmaker; Vivian Pencilinsky (Tina Shepard) is a mathematician; Merigrace Gray (Louise Smith) is a bus driver; Walter "Turbo" Vajrapani (Steven Rattazzi) is an urgent, puzzled Indian doctor; and Morton Salt (Randolph Curtis Rand), "Mort" for short, teaches English to foreigners. When we see them together, they are frequently obsessed by the insect and animal life that scurries between the walls of Nikki's old house: first a swarm of bees (ultimately removed with Bee No More), then baby rats, and, at the end, there may be a python slithering inside the walls.

Different members of the group act weirdly without warning. Suddenly, Mort, instead of talking, can only moo like a cow. Merigrace explains: "Overflow. He's been too many places; he's seen too much; he's kept too many secrets."

Paul Zimet, founder and artistic director of The Talking Band, skillfully directs Maddow's articulate text, eliciting fine performances from the entire cast. Karinne Keithley's choreography is striking.

Generically unique, "Painted Snake" suggests the influence of "Alice in Wonderland" and James Joyce. Zimet, Maddow, and Shepard were members of Joseph Chaiken's justly famous Open Theatre and are keepers of the flame, continuing that performance style here.

"Painted Snake" may well be a cryptic masterpiece. Catch it while you can!

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