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New York Theater

On the Way to Timbuktu

The so-called Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets has fascinated scholars for centuries. The mysterious woman with "dun" skin and hair like "black wires" represents a dark and deeply sexual side of female desire. But was she based on a real historical personality -- perhaps a woman of African descent? Or is she simply a symbol of the darker forces of female lust?

Writer and performer Petronia Paley uses the Dark Lady sonnets to explore the vortex of sexuality, race, and language in her solo show On the Way to Timbuktu. Accompanied by expressionistic live music and video projections, Paley builds a poetic narrative around the character of Dr. Selene Slater-Bernaud, a professor specializing in the politics of race and beauty in Shakespeare. Whether she's traipsing across Morocco with her poet-lover or having a ménage à trois with her husband and a female student, the good professor uses her sexuality in her quest to discover her own identity.

When it works, On the Way to Timbuktu is an intimate theatrical poem cleverly combining sex and race as Paley deftly portrays a tormented woman seeking her own self through the "other." Enhanced by Min Xiao-Fen's music -- plaintive chanting and reverberated mandolins -- the play is most successful as a grouping of moody stanzas. But when it doesn't work, it becomes a muddied mess of narratives linked through Paley's all-too-purple prose. Oddly, for such a poetic piece, On the Way to Timbuktu falls victim to its own narratives, dwelling on certain plot points while stifling the development of others, leaving an arc too fragile to support Paley's final transformation into the Dark Lady herself.

On the Way to Timbuktu explores some engaging ideas, specifically about racial identity and female sexuality. But the play is far more successful tackling these abstracts than the more quotidian aspects of character and narrative. Perhaps the true way to Timbuktu is via the road less traveled.

Presented by and at the Ensemble Studio Theatre,

549 W. 52nd St., NYC.

Dec. 7 - 21. Tue. - Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.

(212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or www.theatermania.com or www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org.

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