Sideshow Theatre Company. By Elizabeth Meriwether. Dir. Jonathan L. Green. With ensemble cast.
Meriwether’s multithreaded, gleefully meta critique of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler concerns Jane, a depressed, pregnant present-day housewife who’s disappeared from her house; her daughter, Nugget, who delivers a school report on Ibsen’s work (“Well Made Play, question mark?”); Jane’s husband, Rick, and his loose-cannon brother, Cubby, who hire a film student to help sell their story to the networks; and the sexually repressed Ibsen himself, facing off against his hostile wife and archrival playwright August Strindberg.
It’s a lot to process, and that’s even before we get to the robots. Jane’s been kidnapped, you see, by sentient robots, who transport her to the Ecuadorean “robotforest” and demand that she play Hedda for them. Sideshow offers what might be the ideal production of this material, with remarkably sophisticated robot actors matching up to a thoroughly grounded performance by Nina O’Keefe as Jane; in addition, Lisi Stoessel’s set provides one of the most satisfying reveals you’ll see all year. But with so many competing, jokey narratives, it’s hard to shake the sense Meriwether’s got too many tongues in her cheek.
The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen
Strange Tree Group. By Emily Schwartz. Dir. Jimmy McDermott. With ensemble cast.
Schwartz’s work almost always has a sense of self-awareness, but this new piece is even more consciously presentational than usual, filled with vaudeville-like set pieces and direct-address narration. That’s appropriate for the way she approaches her subject, the true tale of Dr. H.H. Crippen, convicted in 1910 of murdering his wife and attempting an escape to Canada with his secretary-accomplice-mistress. Schwartz cleverly divides Crippen into three character aspects: the public face (Stuart Ritter), the private romantic (Scott Cupper) and the grandiose dreamer (Matt Holzfeind), who jockey for control and the audience’s sympathy.
The three actors have a winning interplay among themselves and with the rest of the ensemble, which includes Kate Nawrocki as Crippen’s harpyish, fame-hungry wife and Delia Baseman as his secretary, who may be more devious than she first appears. Schwartz would probably be better off avoiding her intermittent lapses into verse, which come across as forcedly sing-song, and the actors sing to prerecorded tracks that make me miss the live music of past Strange Tree shows. Still, Schwartz’s pleasantly off-kilter aesthetic remains as strong as ever, and McDermott handily choreographs the action.
Sonnets for an Old Century
UrbanTheater Company. By José Rivera. Dir. Madrid St. Angelo. With ensemble cast.
Set in an afterlife limbo, Rivera’s 2004 piece comprises a number of monologues of varying length, prompted by a master of ceremonies (Dru Smith) who poses the ultimate existential question: What do you have to say for yourself? The nameless characters recount romances, sex, childhood fantasies and scientific inquiries. A biracial woman recalls encountering the ghosts of other “mixed-bloods” in her El Paso bedroom; a mother fears sending her son to public school; a man admits his lust for his sister-in-law.
The performances are somewhat uneven—unsurprisingly, given the ensemble’s size (19 actors) and relative youth. (Indeed, you may find yourself wondering why every soul in this metaphysical waiting room died young.) But director St. Angelo weaves them into a compelling whole, with a great debt to movement director Esteban Andres Cruz. The visual design is less successful; Liviu Pasare’s video projections seem generic and washed out under Jordan Kardasz’s murky lights.