A yearning to believe in 'Rose'
As a lesson in acting technique, Olympia Dukakis's performance in Martin Sherman's "Rose" is virtuosic. As a theatrical experience, however, this one-woman show at the Boston Center for the Arts delivers less than it should.
Long before the role in "Moonstruck" that brought her an Oscar and fame, Dukakis was an accomplished theater actress, and she has also taught acting extensively. All this experience shows in her work here, even though she's chosen the theatrical equivalent of having her arms tied behind her back: For the entire hour and 50 minutes, she's sitting down, and she's reading from a script.
Despite those restrictions, her performance as Rose, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor reflecting on her life at the turn of the millennium, is often riveting. Every gesture is precise, every glance telling; her eyes alone could have won her that Oscar. Her voice, too, ranges expertly over Rose's every nuance of emotion, from earthy humor to youthful passion to rage to bitter disillusionment.
And yet as much as we may admire the actress's work, we only rarely, for a few precious and hushed moments, stop noticing it. Partly this is because of the intrusive presence of the script in her hand. Rose is sitting shiva in her Miami Beach apartment (just whom she's mourning we won't learn until a shameless last-minute twist), and Dukakis acts some of that out. But she's also, often, just reading, and the back-and-forth between reading and acting is distracting.
More problematic, though, is the play itself. Sherman, best known for the Holocaust drama "Bent," has constructed Rose as a kind of Everybubbe. Not only was she born in a shtetl that endured a pogrom; not only did she lose her first husband and child in the Warsaw Ghetto; not only did she escape the Holocaust and head for Palestine, only to be thwarted by British gunships; not only did she end up marrying a Jewish-American sailor and owning a hotel in Miami Beach. But now her children and grandchildren are radical Israeli settlers.
This woman could give both Zelig and Forrest Gump a run for their money.
The difficulty isn't that any of Rose's experiences couldn't have happened; it's that, as incident piles on incident, it becomes increasingly hard to believe that they all could have. About two husbands in, we stop seeing Rose as a real woman because we're too busy waiting for the next tug from the playwright on his marionette's strings.
And that's a shame, not just dramatically but morally. Sherman clearly has much he wants to tell us about being fully human; most profoundly, in the passages on Israel, he touches on the tragedy of oppressed people becoming oppressors themselves, an element of the play that has sometimes provoked controversy.
But by reducing his character to a mouthpiece and manufacturing "ironic" coincidences to drive his point home, he makes it impossible for us to believe in Rose's humanity. You can't treat people, even fictional people, like objects in order to teach people not to treat each other like objects.
Olympia Dukakis is a great actress. But "Rose" is not a great play.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.