Mating Cries

The Independent Eye, Old City Stage Works, through Feb. 15, 925-2838

Lest we spend so much time trying to figure out the message of Mating Cries that we can't sit back and enjoy the performance, author-actor-directors Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller come forward before it begins and tell us what it all means: "Mating is a really good idea''; "it's really hard sometimes''; and "it's still a really good idea.''

For several of the pieces that constitute Mating Cries, that description serves perfectly well: a series of lonely but eager loners write and answer one another's personals ads, hiding behind the literal and figurative masks of their self-defenses and self-images; a couple marks their "chronicle of desire'' by giving voice to the verbs and prepositional phrases that serve as the barometer of their attraction to one another through the decades; a word-processor fantasizes about her neighbor in the adjoining cubicle, acting out her fantasies on her computer keyboard and on his.

But in the other pieces, all this is going on… and more. The key lies, I think, in the last piece of the evening, an achingly beautiful vignette in which an elderly couple recall, retell, act out and finally embody the mythological story of Philemon and Baucis - the couple who, granted a wish from the gods, desire to die in the same moment, and are transformed by them into adjacent trees, their limbs eternally intertwined, drinking the same wind, rooted in the same Mother Earth.

This story comes to us from Ovid's Metamorphoses, and the motif of metamorphosis is what elevates the more sophisticated pieces in Mating Cries from the others. Desire and love transform us, and are transformed by us, as time inexorably unfolds. Stu, driving Jess to the hospital as she goes into labor, takes a wrong turn onto the freeway and the two end up living out their lives literally in the fast lane, acquiring and shedding children, until they finally crawl to their deaths. A young man at his senior prom meets Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, on the dance floor, in her prom dress, crinolines and necklace of skulls, who takes him on a journey of transformation, a wild dance of desire that ultimately consumes him.

As with the Philemon and Baucis story, not only is mating a good idea, and not only is it hard: it leaves us changed forever. And the only unchanging truth we can cling to is that things will continue to change until the moment of our death - and, the final piece suggests, perhaps even beyond.

These richer segments of Mating Cries are also the most striking theatrically: the puppet-heads of Stu and Jess behind the wheel of their car, their puppet bodies and faces interwoven with those of Bishop and Fuller and, finally, with one another in death; the masked Kali spinning the young man on the seat of his stool in a twirling dance of death. And at the end of the play the elderly couple, having become the characters from mythology whose story they are telling, merge with Bishop and Fuller and finally with us in the audience - each of us in the process of being transformed by our own respective couplings, uncouplings and recouplings.

Bishop and Fuller were assisted in their direction by Whit MacLaughlin, and in their movement work by dancer-choreographer Eric Schoefer.