“Dr. Crippen,” the lovable murderer in the Garage

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?

Two of the ladies at the heart of Strange Tree’s Doctor Crippen, Kate Nawrocki (Cora) and Delia Baseman (Ethel).

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.

The Doctor Himself (left to right): public (Stuart Ritter), private (Scott Cupper), fantastical (Matt Holzfeind).

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.

Krannert delivers “A Dream” both frantic and pedantic

That every man should take his own, In your waking shall be shown: Jack shall have Jill; Nought shall go ill; The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.

Krannert’s season of classics continues with another adaptation of a Shakespearean work, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The selection and method of appropriation, like that of The African Company Presents Richard III, reminds us that was is really at hand is not an exploration of the Western canon, but a considering of what it means to be a “canonical.” As the emended title, “it’s a bacchanal!,” suggests, this staging of the Dream is explicitly interested in the sexualized content the play suggests.

To that end, there were a lot of exposed bodies on stage, with instances of complete nudity in expected and some unexpected places. An excess of fairies were cast from undergraduate acting and dance majors, and they often remained on stage throughout the action, presenting an interested added layer of witnessing. And yet I found the naturalized aspect of nudity combined with much neon body paint a jarring contradiction. Aiming for a Caribbean feel, the costumes just ended up looking like tacky nock-offs from a rave and cheeping, in my mind, the polyamorous intimacies being staged. The intense sexual tenor of the action never wavered or varied, which resulted in creating two effects: a) flattening out of any potential emotional character development, and b) didn’t leave any room alternate readings of the play than the sexually-inflected.

This staging also worked to smooth over its traditionally ambiguous relationships, eliminating interesting sources of tension. One example of this is the kiss and hug Hermia (Sara Heller) receives from her father (Jeremiah Lowry) once Theseus (Jess Prichard) declares her knit with Lysander (Tyrone Phillips). It is an easy resolution to Egeus’ angry speech in the first act about progeny and possession. Similarly, the parts of Theseus and Oberon was double cast as well as Hippolyta and Titania (Jessica Dean Turner)–perhaps to make plain a political echo between the high and rustic plot hierarchies. While Titania’s lines are unavoidably aggressive towards Oberon, her version of Hippolyta (a captured Amazon) plays the witting and contented captive throughout. So while this casting choice suggests some potential politicized reading of the play, it is smoothed over with a lack of logical antagonism.

Fairy Costumes
C. Wilhelm’s nineteenth-century “Dream” costume designs.

The most unsettling element of this Dream as an audience member is the interpretive rift between the driven, frenetic energy of the fairies, and the pedantic method of verse delivery. Most of the actors were blocked in a way in which they prognosticated to the audience rather than engaging with each other. Every single syllable was slowly delivered in a sense of forced aurality, as if it was there intent that I hear every element of the text. Throughout the production I was painfully aware that I was listening to Shakespeare, and so didn’t get a chance to get lost in the play’s action. Aside from the intermittent crazed action from the non-speaking ensemble, the play sounded like a staged reading. This style of delivery, ironically, seemed to rob the actors of a sense of their lines’ meaning.

As an audience member this left me confused and anxious–unsure whether I was supposed to shut my eyes and focus on the verse or be consumed by the display of bodies and neon on stage. However, it must be said that the rustic’s play-within-a-play was done in a funny and smart way, toying knowledgeably with the meta-jokes imbedded in the dumb show parody. It is undoubtedly the production’s highlight, and Peter Quince (Carley Cornelius) steals a bit of the show with a clever delivery of the two prologues to Pyramus and Thisbe. In the end, every man has his mare, the aristocracy is stabilized, and the rustics are rewarded and returned to their proper place. Perhaps the only thing radical about this Dream was revealing our own anxiety and novelty associated with what is (or should have been) the production’s most natural part: the human body.