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Madison Theatre Guild's The Sea Horse is part chamber drama, part screwball comedy
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Stephen Gerard and Terry Kiss Frank drink, reminisce and fight like two liquored-up Dobermans.
Stephen Gerard and Terry Kiss Frank drink, reminisce and fight like two liquored-up Dobermans.
Credit:Marie Schulte

One of the two characters in The Sea Horse is named Gertrude Bloom, recalling two of the queen bees of modernism, Molly Bloom of Ulysses and Gertrude Stein. However, the play, presented by Madison Theatre Guild at the Bartell Theatre, doesn't contain a trace of the anti-illusionism commonly associated with modernist aesthetics: the fourth wall remains intact throughout, and the suspension of disbelief seems vital to the audience's ability to slip into the drama's coarse rhythms.

Yet it'd be too easy (and inaccurate) to call The Sea Horse a work of classical realism; rather, Edward J Moore's play is an engaging example of what might be termed "polished realism." Most of it feels awfully close to offstage experience, but several moments of seemingly out-of-place theatricality call attention to its artifice. Whether this sort of alienation effect is deliberate is both difficult to determine and, ultimately, beside the point.

The plot of The Sea Horse concerns Gertrude (Terry Kiss Frank), a pissy barkeep with a dark history that leaks out little by little, and Harry (Stephen Gerard), a dockworker who serves as Gertrude's lover and persistent annoyance. On a rainy night Harry shows up at Gertrude's titular bar, a dive that'll look all too familiar to many Madisonians; what follows is a peculiar cross between a volatile chamber drama and a screwball comedy.

Harry, a boozehound who's ostensibly incapable of making a commitment, insists that he wants to settle down with the tomboyish Gertrude. Gertrude, whose past experiences with men have been traumatically ugly, doesn't trust Harry as far as she can throw him.

Together they drink, reminisce, drink some more, fail to eat breakfast, fight like two liquored-up Dobermans, make up, make out, rinse and repeat. The play's action amounts to a pattern of confrontational bickering and jolly ribbing, punctuated with flourishes of violent hysteria. It's exhausting to keep up with -- but then again, most relationships are.

This action is loaded with physicality and lots of movement on the stage. (Gertrude and Harry refuse to stay in one spot for longer than 30 seconds, it seems.) Frank and Gerard engage in a decent amount of gender play, frequently trading the proverbial pants in their relationship. "You don't have any balls...you belong in a dress," Gertrude tells Harry at one point in the play's first act; by the second act, it's Gertrude who trades her plaid flannels and khakis for a floral-printed blouse and a long skirt.

But for all its tinkering with gender roles and its unsentimental depiction of middle-aged romance, The Sea Horse leaves most of the sex offstage. Both Gertrude and Harry allude to how much fun they have getting it on with each other, yet because their sex life is hinted at rather than directly presented, the audience is reminded of everything these two misfits are hiding.

The Sea Horse does make a number of persuasive arguments about love; one only wishes it was a bit rougher around the edges.

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