'Menagerie' glows again on Broadway; and an offbeat fantasy

Puppetplay Play by Pearl Cleage. Directed by Clinton Turner Davis. The Negro Ensemble Company has opened its 17th season at the beautifully refurbished Theatre Four with an offbeat fantasy about black female blues. Author Pearl Cleage applies her title, ''Puppetplay,'' both literally and figuratively as her nameless heroine struggles to choose between restrictive security and sexual abandon. Such arbitrary choices limit the play's relevance as a reflection of the broader dilemmas facing American black women today.

Woman One and Woman Two (Seret Scott and Phylicia Ayers-Allen) are dual sides of the same person. These psychological Siamese twins appear at first as a pair of regimented robots who chatter rhythmically as they dance attendance on the larger-than-life marionette who compels their servitude in return for ensuring their shelter and creature comforts. With Mr. Puppet out of the house, One and Two begin a series of arguments over breaking their onerous contract and escaping.

Haunted by the horrors of an affair with a cruelly unfaithful saxophone player, One contends for the domestic status quo and the solace of Smokey Robinson records. Opting for another walk on the wild side, Two vehemently insists that nothing is worse than suffocating tyranny.

Miss Cleage and director Clinton Turner Davis have devised some effective atmospherics, beginning with the puppet figure itself (a huge, loose-jointed body with an African mask for a head) and continuing with such musical embellishments as an electronic score and Wendell Brooks's dazzling saxophone riffs.

On the whole, however, ''Puppetplay'' remains pretty much bounded by the techniques of its novel presentations. Miss Scott and Miss Ayers-Allen invest the alter egos with well-matched emotional tension, but their conflict seldom becomes particularly moving or stirring. The work remains a metaphor with a message.

The production owes much to Brad Brewer's puppetry as well as to Llewellyn Harrison's high-tech setting, Judy Dearing's costumes, William H. Grant III's lighting, and Bernard Hall's design.

As a contribution to upgrading Off Broadway, the Theatre Four renovation is an unqualified success.

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