A State of Virginal Ecstasy; Or, Needs More Snakes in Bowls: “Dark Room”

Ensemble | Photo Credit, Andrew Brilliant

Presented by Bridge Repertory Theater
Written by George Brant
Inspired by the life, death, and photography of Francesca Woodman
Directed by Olivia D’Ambrosio
Associate director and dramaturgy by Alexander Platt
Choreography by Doppelgänger Dance Collective

July 27 – August 16, 2018
In residence at the Multicultural Arts Center
Cambridge, MA
Bridge Rep on Facebook

Review by Kitty Drexel

Disclaimer: I auditioned for this production, and was not cast. It is my opinion that only a jackass would allow rejection, a natural process of auditioning, to taint their review.

(Cambridge, MA) Producer and director, D’Ambrosio gives an important, informative speech before Dark Room to guide audience expectations. She suggests we allow the performance to wash over us. Should we become puzzled by the actions onstage, rather than self-interpret what we see, we should allow the performance to explain itself through continued observance. I’d further posit that audience members do proper research before attending. The chiaroscuro style of Francesca Woodman is emphatically stirring. To fully absorb the performance, it behooves an audience to google Woodman’s art.

George Brant’s play is inspired by photographs from Woodman’s collections. His vignettes flow vignettes to song to dance. As in Woodman’s work, Dark Room is dominated by women, real and fictional in the midst of their relationships. Audience members please be warned: Woodman died by suicide. Dark Room frequently references her death and other dark mental health ailments. Death, dying and heartbreak are frequent companions on this journey.

The subtle dramatic elements at work in this production are integrated so finely as to be invisible. In different hands, Dark Room could easily become a flighty post-modernist production. To preserve plausibility, D’Ambrosio cements scene work in traditional theatre technique and elevates the interscene music and dance to ethereal heights. We are provided a brief scope into a reality at which we grasp. The dance intervals uproot us from this reality and remind us that our narrators aren’t entirely reliable. Dialogue comes in waves and we are whisked from moment to moment.  

The production’s pacing is passed communally from actor to actor as each scene ends. The rhythm extends further to other stage elements as well. Whomever was at the sound and lighting boards developed a great rapport with the cast to weave a near seamless exchange with the actions of stage. At the climax of the play, the lighting design is paired with the staging in competition to the human eye’s ability to receive bright light to deceive the audience into seeing something they aren’t. This is the kind of dramatic symbiosis that productions hope for but rarely achieve.

This performance run comes from years of workshopping. It could use a little more finagling. Dark Room is presented in eleven scenes plus an epilogue. The majority of Brant’s writing is true to sentiment and relatable. Exceptions are the incongruent Samuel Beckett-like coffin scene. “Delicate hands” works until Betsy travels through a nautilus in a graveyard. We don’t understand why we’re brought to these places. We want to believe but only if we’re granted context. The language in the scene depicting a woman finding her grandmother in a mirror sways towards saccharine.  

The cast is great. There are 22 of them and they excel equally. Jenna Pollack as the girl uses modern dance to caress the social bruise of depression. Her work on Doppelgänger Dance Collective’s choreography quakes the senses.

Jenna Pollack | Photo Credit, Andrew Brilliant

From the Madonna cone bra on the chanteuse to the polkadot dress on The Girl (spoiler alert: the unzipped side zipper is not a costume failure – see, attendee research is necessary), the cast was enviably comfortable in their cottons and satiny polyesters. Chelsea Kerl dresses them in clothing that is at once realistic yet dream-like.

Dark Room is abstract. It’s female-focused and many not be suitable for certain viewers. It requires a mature palate but could be accessible to all if one does their proper research. In addition, D’Ambrosio makes a plea to the audience to react to the production. Respect them by responding to their art as appropriate to the context and culture that you’ve been invited to witness. In this time of uncertain communication standards, let your performers know that you’re alive in the audience. They want to know that you’re paying attention.

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