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Bitter Lemon

If you were ever in doubt about theater's ability to provoke, check out Aunt Dan & Lemon, a creepily ambivalent play about sex, fascism, and the malevolent power of ideas, now at the Sol Theatre in Fort Lauderdale. But be warned: While the show asks some troubling questions, it's up to you to provide answers. The audience is greeted by a wan young woman named Lemon, an Anglo-American recluse living in London, subsisting on juices and books about the Third Reich. Lemon's quiet and subtly sinister opener is, "Hello, dear audience... Hello, little children. How sweet you are, how innocent. If everyone were just like you, perhaps the world would be nice again."

Indeed, Lemon's world is decidedly not nice, as she leads us through this warped memory play, restlessly shifting like a dark dream among the people and the ideas she came in contact with as an 11-year-old. We first encounter Lemon's workaholic father and her repressed, left-leaning mother who quarrel about Lemon's anorexia. Then we meet her most important influence, a family friend called Aunt Dan (short for Daniella), who has a passion for philosophical discourse, lesbian romance, and Henry Kissinger's Vietnam realpolitik. It's this last that drives a wedge between Dan and Lemon's mother, once fast friends, prompting Dan to spend less and less time with them and more and more with young Lemon. Dan becomes Lemon's mentor, model, and the object of her unrequited desire. She tells Lemon of her encounters with the sexual libertines back in the London of the swinging '60s, especially one predatory maneater named Mindy, whose naked quest for power serves to illustrate Dan's philosophical points. Dan extols Kissinger as a paragon of virtue, making murderous decisions to protect our comfortable way of life. Her discourses on nihilism, sex, and power have a profound impact on Lemon, but the disturbing result is far from what Dan ever intended.

Robert Hooker's staging gives this tale a theatrical jolt, using nicely etched snippets like quick movie flashbacks. His vivid work extends to some explicit sex scenes (there's partial and full nudity) and a tactile sense of the hedonistic late '60s. The cast is excellent. Julia Clearwood is frighteningly plausible as Mindy, the murderous temptress. Kala Kaminsky makes Aunt Dan a lively, engaging force, steering clear of the character's darker, vampirish qualities seen in other productions. As Lemon, Kim Ehly seems implausibly athletic in the early scenes, but as the story deepens and darkens, she nicely captures Lemon's pathology, and we behold a mutant creature being born.

Shawn, widely known for the cinematic talkfest My Dinner with Andre, is an essayist in the Shavian mode. With long lecture/monologues, many scenes are illustrative, not dramatic; this is less a play than an extended discourse with actors. But Shawn has his own ideas about theater. He isn't interested in easy explanations; what makes Dan tick or why Lemon is a recluse and has food problems are left entirely to the audience's imagination. Shawn intends to provoke, and he succeeds: The finale is an ironic paean to the brutal honesty of Nazism. But there's irony in that irony. Part of Shawn's point is that ideas can turn lethal when impressionable minds latch onto them. The play, first produced in 1985, is also intended as a liberal critique of right-wing politics -- linking Nazi death camps to American policy in Vietnam and the destruction of Native American cultures. But the play relies so much on straight-faced irony, it has been attacked as being pro-Nazi.

Such unintended consequences extend to the Sol production as well. Dan's rather positive portrayal fits the Sol's style -- the company regularly portrays gays and lesbians in heroic roles -- but it raises more problems. To make its political points, the play relies on the presumption that Dan is essentially malevolent. But this upbeat Dan is downright likable, a rare instance of a right-wing character given a positive depiction on the stage. As a result, Dan seems more victim than villain, giving more weight to Shawn's point about the manipulability of ideas than to his political arguments.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Shawn's political points are skillfully rendered, but they reek of sophistry. Do Nazi death camps really equate with the American conduct of the Vietnam War, as Shawn suggests? It may be easy for some to make the connection, but it's hard to see the historic logic of the comparison. Still, the play makes for intriguing theater precisely because its ambiguities emphasize its unintended consequences. Thus, without divulging the shocking ending, we can say the story echoes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and its message of chastened rationalism. Be careful what you create, both stories say, because you never know what effect you will bring upon yourself. Shawn's creature may have gotten away from him, but it certainly has a life of its own.

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Ronald Mangravite

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