The Strange Tree Group’s most recent project, The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen, was purportedly inspired by a book that was inspired by an actual historical instance of technology and murder on the high seas. Beyond this, however, the facts of the Crippen Murders become hazy, and the paper trail has led to no concrete conclusions about what actually happened to the good doctor’s wife. In order to respond to this historical fuzziness, playwright Emily Schwartz instead presents with with three Crippens, three potential realities all in conversation with one another. These three selves–the public, the private, the fantasy–all work to write and rewrite Crippen’s life, implicitly posing the recurring question: What makes a good story?
The Steppenwolf Theatre Company (with its Pulitzers and Tonys) thought it was a good question, too. Good enough, in fact, to include Schwartz’s play as one of three in their 2011 Garage Rep season, which seeks to support and promote Chicago’s most innovative (and often under-funded) theatre companies in repertory. Likewise, Crippen been well received by critics and the public sporting positive reviews and packed houses. This repertory process is unique in that Crippen was essentially commissioned by Steppenwolf based on proposals submitted last spring, and then developed and work-shopped in close collaboration with the artistic staffs of Steppenwolf and the two other repertory companies, Sideshow and UrbanTheatre.
It seems this process worked its way into the play’s aura: Crippen is a play that ponders it’s own imagined audience as well as the conditions of storytelling. This sense of subtle meta-theatrics is a core part of the Strange Tree aesthetic, where the idea of playfulness and the play event seem of equal concern. Whatever you do, never walk in late. There is a half-hour pre-show where characters intermittently walk about the stage and engage with the crowd on some business relevant to the plot. In this case, the Women’s Guild interviewed audience members and compared them to a photo of the wanted fugitive. Also, the two love interests, Cora and Ethel, sing together a few old-timey tunes while one took a bath and the other attended secretarial work. With no intermission, and the ensemble works hard to prepare it’s audiences to be fully emerged in the fiction of the play.
Similarly, Strange Tree has a signature nouveau-Gothic design that is in full force, but hard to put a finger on. Visually, they borrow, adapt, and even over-expose lush Victorian imagery, wherein their stripped down and mobile sets always seem rich yet foreboding. Message of love and murder are spelled out with the spines of books on a painted bookshelf; a prescription for poison is scrawled on and twines around a painted flower vase. This sense of darkness is at times absurd, but avoids the distasteful edge of cynicism with its playfulness. Schwartz’s productions love to frolic on this line between the dire and the daft, and it is that sense of playfulness which is pleasurably unsettling in some way. For example, Funeral Wedding (The Alvin Play)–my personal favorite–considered abandoned children and what we are to do with the memories of the dead.
In a similar vein, Crippen considers what we should and perhaps shouldn’t do in the pursuit of love. This play toes the dire/daft line most closely in that we anticipate that the “fantasy” and “public” Crippens deserve and will be hung for the crime, but still imagine, to the very last instant, that “private” Crippen will escape with his love. Even if the progeny of Edward Gorey don’t particularly strike your fancy, this play, which questions whether we unequivocally benefit from following our desires, will.
- The Strange Tree Group‘s production of The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen plays at the Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre in Chicago until 24 April 2011.
- Note that this production is a part of the 2011 Garage Rep season, which is a Steppenwolf Visiting Company Initiative. The Trees do not have a permanent home, but have used the Congress Theatre and mostly the Chopin Theatre spaces for their work. Check out their upcoming projects on the website or blog.