That old devil (or, to be more precise, that old goddess) love gets quite the workout in StageQ's production of Sappho in Love, now playing at the Bartell Theatre. Featuring an all-female cast of 20 performers, the play tries to untangle the amorous skeins that entwine us poor mortals, even as it makes delicious fun of how silly we get when we submit to the most powerful emotion we have.
Award-winning playwright Carolyn Gage, whose Ugly Ducklings was performed by StageQ in 2006, sets her scene in the time of Greek mythology. On the island of Lesbos, the promiscuous poet Sappho becomes a bone of contention among a meddlesome trio of jealous deities who squabble over the importance of their particular version of love. Artemis, goddess of the hunt, demands celibacy and self-determination; Hera, goddess of marriage, believes that fidelity is the true path; Aphrodite, goddess of love, thinks we're all here for a good time and should behave accordingly. (She's willing to lubricate any squeaky resistance with juicy dollops of her nectar. And yes, she does mean that literally.)
This could easily have been some lame social satire (Desperate Goddesses, anyone?), but Gage's script romps along with sexy smarts and lubricious hilarity. "You young girls never let me finish," Aphrodite yelps at her sniveling servant Persuasion when she interrupts her mistress --- and you know she's not just talking about her sentences. There's plenty more where that came from in a script that is filled with memorable lines and saucy double-entendres.
Director Katy Conley, ably abetted by an effective set from Chris Chambliss, keeps the action moving, but it's the inconsistency of the performances where Conley needs to apply a firmer hand. At one point, Artemis says to Aphrodite that it's not enough to just have passion. The goddess retorts, "No, you also need technique!" That exchange fairly sums up the quality of the acting: plenty of passion, not enough technique.
Molly Vanderlin, for example, gives us an Aphrodite that Tallulah Bankhead would be proud of, full of caustic quips and louche physicality. But an otherwise terrific performance is marred by Vanderlin's insistence on walking through a succession of laugh lines. Actors, especially in comedy, really do need to listen for their audience.
Likewise, Boye Nagel's portrayal of a ceaselessly sighing Sappho masquerades as naturalism, but ultimately it results in too many lines getting lost. Nikki Weinfurtner is immensely likable, if a little bloodless, as Persuasion, while Leonie Dolch as Artemis and Laura Spring as Hera start uncertainly but grow in stature as the play unfolds. Marian Herzog, as the impish troublemaker Timas, has several enjoyable moments, as does Christine Esche as Athis, a lovelorn lesbian-in-waiting.
There were some bad cases of opening night nerves, with at least a dozen flubbed lines, but the gremlins will surely get worked out with performance. Uneven though it may be, this is a funny and entertaining production, and a packed house rightfully gave it an enthusiastic ovation.