Word Up

The Confessions of Madame Psyche
From the novel by Dorothy Bryant. Directed by Delia MacDougall. Starring Yumi Sumida, JoAnne Winter, Sammie Choy, Jeri Lynn Cohen, and Tahmus Rounds. Presented by Word for Word at the Magic Theater, Fort Mason Center, Building D, through Dec. 22. Call 441-8822.

It was a dark and stormy night. The parking lot outside the Magic was a lake of puddles. You have to be desperate to be out on such a night. Or a little crazy. (Some would say both.) Of course, it helps if, like the MagicTOO's Mame Hunt -- co-producer with Word for Word of Dorothy Bryant's novel The Confessions of Madame Psyche -- you are "obsessed with writing." Or if you share director Delia MacDougall's desire to "see the author's voice."

Word for Word, whose defining gimmick is to present literary works whole and entire, as opposed to adapting them, has transformed that thorny commitment into its own theatrical language. As the characters of the book take the stage, they seamlessly trade off the chores of providing descriptive narration -- the author's voice, if you will -- and so supply the story's music, texture, and tone without trapping it in a single narrator. It's a splendidly effective device, one that allows the audience to slip easily into the onstage world.

Then there's the matter of the literary selection itself. Some books -- Bryant's Confessions of Madame Psyche among them -- seem to leap off the page and transform themselves into instant movies or plays as you read; that is one of their best tricks and seductions. In effect they disappear, drawing the reader into a world as sensuous, full, and rewarding as that encountered by the characters. So when the book's heroine -- a bright, mischievous Chinese-American called Mei-Li (Yumi Sumida) -- makes her entrance as an elderly lady with a cane, righting upturned chairs, and straightening the furnishings of a long-abandoned room (set by John J. Levendowski, mood-enhancing lighting by Andrew Yerys), we understand that we are entering a retrospective world of memory.

This small, quiet moment acts as half the frame for the story, which is but the first chapter of the book; the other half comes with the great earthquake of 1906. In between are crammed the amazing facts of Mei-Li's early childhood and the years preceding her birth, including various disgraces committed by her Irish-American black sheep father from Boston, the births of her two stepsisters, the family's removal to Hunters Point, and their mother's desertion of the family. This, in 1886, leads Mei-Li's charming drunkard father, Parker Murrow (Tahmus Rounds), to bring home Dilly (Sammie Choy), a Chinese prostitute he rescues from a racist mob. Dilly becomes Murrow's maid and then his common-law wife, giving birth to Mei-Li and happily raising her among the shrimpers and fishermen who glean a living from the bay.

When Mei-Li is 8, Dilly dies, and the child's unspeakable grief is relieved only by discovering a propensity for tricking others, most notably her stepsister Sophie (JoAnne Winter), who has returned home after losing husband and children to a typhoid epidemic. Sophie's comfort comes from nightly visits to Signora Renata (Jeri Lynn Cohen), a canny charlatan who initiates Mei-Li into the art of preying upon her client's superstitions.

Bryant has constructed a world of almost dizzying richness, and under MacDougall's economic and elegant direction, the versatile ensemble does indeed allow us to see the author's voice. As Mei-Li, Sumida brilliantly negotiates the difficult territory of playing a child who grows into adulthood. She has an appealingly androgynous presence, which allows her the full range of story as well as the distance of the retrospective narrator. Choy brings warmth, compassion, and a splendid dignity to the role of Dilly. As Signora Renata, Cohen is wonderfully wry, wise, and funny, and Rounds rescues Murrow from disgrace with a tender humanity.

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