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Theatre in Review: Squeamish (All For One/Theatre Row)

Alison Fraser. Photo: Maria Baranova

If anyone could convince an audience that drinking blood is a perfectly rational act, it is Alison Fraser. Over the course of a career that has ranged from musicals by William Finn to eerie abstractions by Edward Albee and Adrienne Kennedy, the lady has done it all. She's been one of Gypsy's broken-down strippers and a sinister lady of the veil in The Divine Sister, Charles Busch's spoof of all things clerical. She's been equally at home as a salt-of-the-earth British housemaid in The Secret Garden and as a bizarre grande dame -- denouncing the sins of the flesh while dressed in a Balenciaga gown -- in a Tennessee Williams fever dream titled In Masks Outrageous and Austere. Simply put, there is no role too homespun or too weird for her to tackle. Call her fearless and you've said it all.

Fraser's performances never feel like stunts, either, because she has the skill to match her game-for-anything nature, her willingness to explore any crooked psychological cul-de-sac cooked up by a playwright. In Squeamish, she is Sharon, a Manhattan psychotherapist, initially comfortably ensconced in a wingback chair, chatting comfortably with her psychiatrist before launching into a personal narrative that ends in the revelation of a ghastly new form of addiction. Right away, there are intimations that something is off: Sharon hasn't visited with the (unseen) doctor for some time, and she has shown up, in the middle of the night, with a story that, she nicely insists, she must impart to him, now. She begins on a cozily intimate note, indulging in some shoptalk -- subtly flattering him by noting that she lacks a medical degree and can't dispense drugs like he can, and frankly discussing her rash decision to dispense with her regime of anti-depressants.

Then, one by one, the bombs start dropping. Sharon has just returned from a visit to her hometown, where she attended the funeral of her beloved nephew Eddie, an apparent suicide. This tragic situation is made more difficult by her prickly relationship with Becky, her sister and Eddie's mother. Escaping from one more family fight, Sharon goes off with the Eddie's girlfriend Cara, a winsome young thing who has her own unusual ideas about the attainment of spiritual balance. While Sharon is visiting with Cara, another woman drops by, and, standing in the backyard, surrounded by tiki torches, submits to having a ceremonial incision made to her midriff, so that Cara can take a small drink of blood. Sharon is also invited to partake.

The rationale for behavior most often associated with Transylvanian counts and creatures haunting the New Orleans night has something to do with the medieval concept of humors and finding a spiritual balance with the right mix of body fluids, but you needn't concern yourself too much with that. Suffice to say that Sharon, postponing her trip home, becomes an enthusiastic member of the "sanguinary" community; she insists that the practice provides her with a new and healthy outlook on life. And with all the rules in place -- the ceremonial nature of the act, the modest incisions, the volunteer donors who keep strict tabs on their health -- what could possibly go wrong?

We soon discover the answer to that question as Sharon finds that just one drink just isn't enough. Soon, she is breaking the rules and, in the carnage that follows, she learns the horrible truth about her nephew's death. As she races through the grisly details of what happens next, it begins to occur to us that the good doctor, who is listening to all of this, is in quite a moral pickle.

Aaron Mark, the playwright, is a specialist in solo horror pieces; a couple of seasons ago, Empanada Loca, starring Daphne Rubin-Vega, featured a tricky, deceptive narrative that in its climactic moments had audiences jumping out of their seats. In that piece Mark took his time, letting us get to know the narrator before she found herself awash in blood; part of its attraction was the fact that, for the longest time, you couldn't see where the story was going. Squeamish wastes little time putting Sharon on the path to hell; as a result, its shocks feel too calculated, its narrative too predictable. Mark also undercuts his heroine by making her too willing to take up sanguinary practices; unlike Empanada Loca, it's easy to feel one step ahead of the narrative -- and impatient to get on with it.

Still, Fraser gives it her considerable all, beginning on a note of total assurance, giving an unsparing account of family infighting, turning bright-eyed with elation once Sharon has taken up drinking blood, and, step by step, slipping into a feral state that somehow exists side-by-side with her coolly professional manner. By the moment she lunges, her teeth bared in rage, you may find yourself examining each incisor for stray drops of red liquid.

Then again, in Sarah Johnston's tightly controlled scenic and lighting design, Fraser is encased in darkness, illuminated with the minimum amount of light needed for us to pick out her face; our attention remains on the actress, where it should be. The costume consultant, Michael Growler, has also dressed Fraser attractively and appropriately.

If Mark hasn't provided a sufficiently gripping narrative this time out, acting as his own director he has found the right woman for the job and turned her loose on the material. In contrast to the rather contrived and mechanical shocks that mark the plot of Squeamish, Fraser's performance conveys an animal-like terror that cannot be dismissed. (Despite her character's appetites, the actress never sinks her teeth into the scenery.) Her unswerving commitment and intensity in the face of a difficult script once again proves that she is a class act, no matter the circumstances. -- David Barbour

(20 October 2017)

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