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Photograph by Tom Chargin

Horse Play: Cody Nickell takes a ride through the past as a cavalryman in 'Mary's Wedding.'

Riders on the Storm

All's poetry in love and war at Rep's production of 'Mary's Wedding'

By Marianne Messina

YOU CAN RIDE a lot of poetry on the back of a good love story. San Jose Repertory Theatre's current offering, Mary's Wedding, does just that--at a recent production, the love story brought out the sniffles. A young man and woman meet in a barn as they seek shelter from a thunderstorm. Charlie (Cody Nickell) fears the thunder; Mary (Julie Jesneck), assures him it will pass and leads him in reciting Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade." The progress of their romance is told as a series of dreams that cut back and forth between the couple's courtship and Charlie's service on a World War I battlefield.

In the war sequences, the Mary character also plays Charlie's sergeant in the Canadian cavalry. Jesneck handles the abrupt shifts with agility, donning a masculine swagger and lower-class British accent for the sergeant. Her transitions are marred only by a distracting costume--bare feet and an unappealing white (is for wedding) nightgown, obviously meant to remind us we're watching a dream. (Couldn't the poor girl at least have a dressing gown and some slippers in which to go slogging through the trenches?)

From the sound of it, Mary's Wedding could be confusing to follow, but it's not. The two plot sequences are really quite simple: Boy and girl fall in love; boy goes to war. From the opening scene, when Jesneck's charming, lighthearted Mary takes us into her confidence, she weaves a mood of "Ah, when love was young." Like guests at a wedding, we know the icons, supply our own details, become very susceptible to the elements of mood. Canadian playwright Stephen Massicotte borrows some feelings from Tennyson's poetry--Charlie lives out "The Charge of the Light Brigade" while Mary inhabits "The Lady of Shalott." And Massicotte heightens the atmosphere with his visually poetic descriptions. "Sheets of rain" recur often, usually in a sort of nonlinear gap where the dream and dreamer intersect. The drift of the Germans' chlorine gas is described as "always teased by the winds towards our lines," the approach of enemy fire as "We see the puffs before we hear the shots."

Such opulent imagery makes Mary's Wedding a theatrical designer's paradise. Set and lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols gives his stark set plenty of lighting surfaces, thereby accomplishing abrupt, surreal scene changes at the flip of a lighting program--a barn door becomes a churning nighttime sea, a bright summer's day becomes a brooding wartime inferno. Jeff Mockus adds the finishing touches in sound design--an ethereal vanishing effect on Mary's voice for a disorienting dream, or vague, ominous, low tones under an intense battle description.

Mary's Wedding has no intermission. It doesn't need one; it appropriates your sense of time like a dream. Massicotte's script goes perhaps a speech and a refrain too long, trying to tie up his metaphorical skeins--that grief is a dream we wake from gradually; that inside the excitement of life lie the kernels of death; that people become part of each other in tangible ways. Fortunately, the untidiness of poetry doesn't lend itself to easy resolution. Instead it joins the production's puzzling central image--a huge, wooden mechanical horse--and follows you home.

Mary's Wedding, a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm (except Nov. 16), with a noon show Nov. 12, through Nov. 16 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $18-$52. (408.367.7255)

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From the October 30-November 5, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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