Prelude:The Life And Work Of Katherine Mansfield
Walkabout Theatre

In a journal entry near the end of her brief life, Katherine Mansfield wrote, "Take the case of K.M. She has led, ever since she can remember, a very typically false life. Yet, through it all, there have been moments, instants, gleams, when she felt the possibility of something quite other.

9/8/01 - 10/01/01

?In a journal entry near the end of her brief life, Katherine Mansfield wrote, "Take the case of K.M. She has led, ever since she can remember, a very typically false life. Yet, through it all, there have been moments, instants, gleams, when she felt the possibility of something quite other."
In Loren Crawford's ambitious but flawed new play about Mansfield's life and work, the K.M. we meet seems not so much false as obscured by the impasto of biographical detail presented onstage. There are, however, many moments, instants, gleams when Mansfield's fascinating character and unparalleled artistry shine through.
Crawford, who won plaudits last year for her adaptation and performance of Mansfield's story "The Canary," bears a striking resemblance to the writer and plays her well here. Under Stephan Mazurek's detailed direction, Prelude: The Life and Work of Katherine Mansfield often uncovers the yearning, wit, rage, and passion at the heart of this complicated woman. Most impressive, Crawford believably conveys Mansfield's losing battle with tuberculosis, never resorting to gimmickry or losing track of the character's continued vitality.
Crawford's script does suffer from excess, however. At nearly three hours with two intermissions, the show provides a deluge of names and fleeting impressions of Mansfield's lovers, publishers, friends, and family. Many of the nuances and shifts in her life dramatized here probably won't resonate with someone who hasn't recently immersed herself in Mansfield's work and biography (Crawford draws heavily on Antony Alpers's well-respected The Life of Katherine Mansfield as well as original sources such as her letters and journals). And yet there's the occasional surprising omission. "Prelude" is also the title of one of Mansfield's best works, a rich memory piece about her New Zealand childhood first titled "The Aloe." It gained greater poignance when Mansfield went to the south of France in 1916 to mourn her beloved only brother, Leslie (nicknamed "Chummie"), a soldier who died in a hand grenade accident during World War I. The story served in some ways as an olive branch to her family, from whom (with the exception of Chummie) Mansfield had been largely estranged since her early 20s. Chummie's death and the war marked Mansfield indelibly, and Crawford's play succeeds at capturing the horror and carnage of the front through Mansfield's rage and sorrow--rage at the inability of her Bloomsbury peers (particularly Virginia Woolf) to adequately address the war in their work, sorrow at the loss of connection with her family. In the play, we see a very weak Mansfield near the end of her life turning in a review of Woolf's novel Night and Day, a work she describes to her husband, critic and publisher John Middleton Murry, as "a lie in the soul. The war never has been: that is what its message is." But we don't ever see Woolf or her husband onstage, which is puzzling since they published "Prelude" through the Hogarth Press.
In Mazurek's staging a large white scrim is suspended at the rear of the stage, behind which shadowy figures from Mansfield's life haunt her imagination and memory. This device is overused but sometimes effective, working best in the scenes between Mansfield and her overbearing parents. After Mansfield's one-day marriage to George Bowden in 1909 (she left him on their wedding night and subsequently became pregnant by Garnet Trowell, a suitor her family had earlier deemed inappropriate), her mother sails from New Zealand to England to inform Mansfield that she must take herself off to a Bavarian "rest spa." Here the comically grotesque figure of the mother looms large over the frightened, downhearted young Mansfield.
This early experience had great ramifications for Mansfield's career and life: her first collection of short stories, the 1911 In a German Pension, grew out of her stay in Bavaria, where she suffered a miscarriage. Yet in the play the situation is sketchy. We hear about Trowell, mostly through letters from Chummie (played by Jeff Grafton with an openheartedness that borders on the puppylike), but Trowell's emotional importance to Mansfield remains foggy. So do many of Mansfield's emotional attachments, to men and women alike. Even her passion for her husband is difficult to understand. F. David Roth plays Murry as a reticent but basically decent chap overwhelmed by life with a dying woman (Mansfield was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917 and died in 1923). When Mansfield decries Woolf's novel, her tirade turns into a coughing fit; Roth's Murry covers his mouth and nose with a handkerchief and silently turns away. That image says far more than anything else in the play about the effect of her illness on their marriage. Less clear is the couple's thorny relationship with D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda. Though Mansfield and Murry are widely accepted as the models for Gudrun and Gerald in Lawrence's Women in Love, Crawford's script is murky on the nature of this four-way friendship. The one thing that's eminently apparent in John Bryce Fischer's fearsome portrayal of Lawrence is that the man was a world-class shit; a scene where he beats his wife in the presence of Mansfield and Murry is quite disturbing, all the more so for Susan Karsnick's layered, anguished portrayal of the oft maligned Frieda.
In many regards the most interesting and enduring relationship in Mansfield's life was with Ida Constance Baker, a classmate at Queen's College in London who proved the most loyal of the writer's friends. Their interactions illustrate one of the least savory aspects of Mansfield's character: a tendency to turn on those who loved her when her need for solitude was overwhelming. It's deeply unsettling to see Mansfield all but physically toss Baker out when her friend follows her to the continent on a rest cure. Rae Dawn Belt makes Ida a simple, loving presence yet suggests deeper currents under a smooth surface. And Baker forms an interesting contrast to Mansfield, whose clothes and demeanor evolve from provincial schoolgirl to Bloomsbury sophisticate while Baker's garb and persona change scarcely at all. (Katherine Bus's smartly detailed period costumes and Vince Dolittle's stark projections of World War I battle scenes are among the show's many evocative visual elements.)
Crawford often incorporates Mansfield's writing in the script and creates an alter ego, based on the young Mansfield in "Prelude," named Kezia (sounds like "desire"). But the device of having Kezia recite sections from the stories wears thin, and Jessica Dunton's occasionally uncertain enunciation causes us to miss some of the poetry in these passages. Several cast members play multiple roles, sometimes very well. Fischer shines as a grieving man torturing an insect in "The Fly," and Karsnick brings comic buffoonery to a smug German matron in a scene from the 1911 "Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding" (which chillingly foreshadows Germany's aggression).
Ultimately the play's greatest strength proves its downfall: Crawford obviously loves her subject so much and has learned so much about her that she had a difficult time editing and shaping her script to convey her vision to an audience. Yet her passion is almost enough to overcome the show's flaws. I hope Crawford and Mazurek continue working on this piece, because Mansfield deserves to be brought into sharp focus by people with this much skill and love.? Kerry Reid, Chicago Reader August 31, 2001

?Especially when they are playing admirable and under-appreciated historical figures, many actors become intensely involved with their characters. But Loren Crawford's strikingly intense performance as the New Zealand-born writer Katherine Mansfield in a new play presented by the Walkabout Theatre Company is very, very far being from just another actress doing another role.
For one thing, Crawford has been obsessed with Mansfield (who lived between 1888 and 1923 and is considered one of the great masters of the short-story form) for more than 20 years. Last year, she adapted and starred in a piece based on a Mansfield short story. And this new biographical work, was penned by Crawford in an attempt to probe the complex psyche of the author, who expired at age 34, having penned just three published collections of stories.
This is truly a performance of extraordinary depth and commitment. It's so special, in fact, that the incoherence of the direction and the weakness of the material that surround it are especially regrettable.
Anyone crafting a biography of a writer, especially one whose prose was so revelatory of her adventurous spirit, has to solve the tricky problem of how to include the subject's own work in the overall dramatic biography. Crawford does this by creating a second Mansfield character (played by Jessica Dunton), who can express the writer's inner feelings. This is not a bad idea in itself, but Crawford (wearing her authorial hat) did not seem to know what to do with this alter ego, who comes across as wishy-washy and disconnected.
Director Stephan Mazurek has an extensive background in photography, and he does a splendid job integrating the live actors with some huge projected images that are used to great effect on the Chopin Theatre's huge stage. But Mazurek made the disastrous decision to stage a large portion of this play behind a scrim; he has his actors appear mainly as barely audible shadow-puppets.
This spoils most of the intimacy of the show, reducing many of the supporting characters to, well, shadows -- when they are essential to telling the story of Mansfield's life in human terms.
Amid all these problems, a jumbled picture of Mansfield does eventually emerge. For a general audience, at least, she is not a well-known figure, and any play about her life needs a lot more background -- and, most important, it must make the case why we should spend a night in her company.
Crawford has done her work as an actress. If Mansfield is to continue as her passion, Crawford now must work on the other vital elements of theater.? Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune September 14, 2001

?Dead by age 34, writer Katherine Mansfield had, in strictly chronological terms, little more than a prelude to life. Yet she crammed so much experience, so much travel, so many friendships, so many lovers and so much writing into that short span that she seemed to live twice as long.
The precocious third daughter of a well-to-do New Zealand family, Mansfield moved to London in 1903 while still a teenager, to complete her college education. Already known for her independent spirit, her exceptional memory, her long, complex sentences and her fiercely original mind, she was a writer by instinct and temperament. In the course of her short, chaotic, illness-plagued life--she succumbed to tuberculosis in 1923--she produced scores of short stories which often are talked about in the same breath as those of Chekhov. The Walkabout Theater Company production of "Prelude: The Life and Work of Katherine Mansfield" deserves attention both for its insightful look at what makes an artist tick, and for its often artful and experimental approach to staging. But the three-hour show, directed by Stephan Mazurek and written by Loren Crawford (who also stars in a highly convincing and complex portrayal of Mansfield), Most notable among them is that a good half of the dense and literate text is inaudible, either because of mumbled speech or a simple lack of attention to the vocal demands of the handsome but sound-swallowing Chopin Theatre, where the show is being performed. Also frustrating is the often confusing mix of dialogue and mostly unidentified excerpts from Mansfield's writing itself, combined with the appearance of characters who are not clearly introduced, and fleeting, unexplained references. And while the play's program contains a solid outline of Mansfield's life, such information should be gleaned from the play itself, rather than the notes.
Clearly the show is in serious need of an editor, but its problems can be fixed. Despite its flaws, the portrait of the artist presented here is so intriguing that it is bound to send you looking for Mansfield's stories if you haven't already encountered them.
There are two Mansfield characters in Crawford's play; the lean, tense, impulsive one who actually moves through all the events and is played by Crawford, and her more sensual, dreamy, artistic alter- ego, Kezia (played by the lyrical Jessica Dunton). We follow the worldly Mansfield as she meets Ida Constance Baker (played with great skill and consistency by Rae Dawn Belt), her often overly worshipful lifelong friend. She takes on various lovers and goes through a miscarriage (or possibly has an abortion) in Germany, and first encounters John Middleton Murry (a spirited performance by F. David Roth), the editor who will later become her husband. And we get some idea of her encounters with the tempestuous D. H. Lawrence (played in all his wild mood swings by John Bryce Fischer), and his abused but pugnacious German wife, Frieda (strongly played by Susan Karsnick), whose horrifying relationship is dramatized in all its brutishness.
Fittingly, one of the strongest scenes comes with the death of Mansfield's beloved brother, Leslie (good work by Jeff Grafton), who is killed in France during World War I. The writer understood very well that this war would change the world--and her world--profoundly and forever.
The use of a scrim, against which the characters in Mansfield's work appear as giant shadows, is visually effective; but whether it is real life or scenes from Mansfield's writings that are playing out there is often difficult to discern. Lori Willis' minimalist sets, including maps and writings sketched on the theater's floor and walls, sets just the right mood, as do J.R. Lederle's lighting and Katherine Bus' costumes. All in all, "Prelude" is an ambitious, intelligent project that should be viewed as an exceptionally promising work-in-progress.? Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times September 23, 2001

?Loren Crawford thinks it's pretty wild that a girl from Kentucky found her way to writing a play about New Zealand-born short story writer Katherine Mansfield. But for nearly 20 years, Crawford has had a deep kinship with the writer, reading everything by and about the author--the short stories, the journals, the letters.
"The journals were especially intimate, fresh and modern," recalled Crawford. "It was like you picked them up just as she stopped writing and not 75 years later."
It was this modern touch as well as the fact that Mansfield was "funny and brave and very bohemian" that inspired Crawford to write "Prelude: The Life and Work of Katherine Mansfield." The drama, in which Crawford also stars, attempts to uncover what makes a person an artist and when does the act of creation become one of salvation.
"What interested me the most was her relationship with her work and what it meant to her life," said Crawford, 39. "Particularly at that time in history; her life hinged on the Great War. Coming from New Zealand, she had a very different take on the war than most other writers in Europe. She lost her brother and that changed everything for her."
Born in 1888 and dead by the age of 34, Mansfield was considered a maverick. She was impassioned, determined and wickedly witty, and persuaded her parents at the age of 18 to let her live alone in London. Her friendships and sexual relations crossed national, class and gender boundaries.
Mansfield is credited with giving the short story a legitimacy that helped stabilize it as an art form. She was a master at observing the tiny spaces between joy and sadness. Crawford also has adapted Mansfield's story, "The Canary," into a one-woman monologue, which she performed last year at Walk About Theater.
"I liked the voice in the story that is trying to figure out the importance of love and devotion in a life," said Crawford. "This elderly woman whose only friend is a small bird finds that love and comfort can come from unexpected places."
Mansfield was a friend of D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf. She is said to be the influence behind the character of Gudrun in Lawrence's Women in Love and Beatrice Gilray in Huxley's Point Counter Point. Woolf once wrote that Mansfield's work was, ". . .the only writing I have ever been jealous of."
The Bloomsbury gang, which included Woolf and her husband, Leonard, didn't quite know what to make of Mansfield, said Crawford. Even though she was younger, Mansfield was an influence on Woolf.
"Virginia Woolf had a kinship with her and could see and appreciate the vision in Mansfield's work," said Crawford. "Her work before they met was very much ingrained in the Victorian world. But after they became friends, it blossomed out into a very different world."
A graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied acting, Crawford admits that in recent years her focus has been shifting more toward writing and education. She worked for a year as an artist-in- residence in Kentucky where she traveled around the state working with children. Since last January, she has taught writing and the humanities at the Triumphant Charter School, a refuge for middle- school students on the verge of dropping out.
"It's a really exhausting job and creating a balance between my writing and teaching life is really tough," said Crawford. "But I love collaborating with the students who really need an infusion of art into their lives."
Crawford also loves collaborating with Stephan Mazurek, a longtime friend, who is directing "Prelude." It is the 16th show they have worked on together.
"It's a terrific creative partnership," said Crawford. "I can't imagine at this point in my career taking my big bag of jumbled writing and giving it to someone else. Stephan gives me clarity and focus; a great second perspective. I consider him my partner in art."
Mazurek, who also is a filmmaker and still photographer, counters with his opinion about why they work so well together: "Perhaps it's because we're good at talking about and around and through things. We aren't communicating in only one way. Because there are so many ways to present a story, we don't want to limit it to just one path." Mary Houlihan, Chicago Sun-Times August 17, 2001

?As the lights come up on Walkabout Theater Company's "Prelude, The Life and Work of Katherine Mansfield", actor/playwright Loren Crawford stands alone amid giant chalk-drawn maps and phrases scrawled in precise girlish handwriting, speaking to the audience as if reciting from the counter-conventional, short-lived writer/s diary.
Others join her to tell the story, appearing either as live participants or shadowy figures projected and distorted on a gauzy scrim- a visual interplay that creates a multidimensional effect on the Chopin Theater's solid, flat stage.? Kim Wilson, Performink September 28, 2001

Loren Crawford

Stephan Mazurek

Rae Dawn Belt, Jessica Dunton, Jeff Grafton, Loren Crawford, John Bryce Fisher, Susan Carsnick, F. David Roth

Lori Willis, Jr Lederle, Katherine Bus, Brian Jeffrey, Vince Dolittle

Tags: Theater, Rest Of The World, 2001