Movies, TV and radio have just about killed the art of storytelling. But once upon a time, evenings must have been rich with clever tales that could inspire outrageous flights of imaginative fancy. Dark Matter: Five Gothic Tales of Horror by Don Nigro harkens back to that all-but-forgotten tradition this latest production from Mildred's Umbrella is basically an evening of storytelling at its best. Oftentimes, theater that depends on so much talking and so little drama is deadly dull, but Nigro's grisly stories, combined with some delightful performances, make for a surprisingly entertaining night of theater.
The first story, "Darkness Like a Dream," is told by a character named Desdemona (played by a lovely Amy Warren), who starts off sounding as normal as they come. An actress, she invites an old boyfriend to see her show and is surprised and thrilled when he arrives. Afterwards, she asks him to go out with her all normal enough but what happens next is simply bizarre. Of course, we've gotten lots of hints that she might not be quite right. She tells us that it'd been seven years since she'd last seen him and since "seven years is how long it takes for every cell in your body to have been replaced by other cells," he's a "totally different person" when she meets up with him again. She also explains that he's like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. It's poetically esoteric thinking like this that makes this young woman so much trouble. She gets her friend to follow her deep into the woods, and after realizing that she can't bear the thought of him leaving her, she does something very creepy to him. The story itself is weird and haunting, but it's Nigro's language and Warren's oddly innocent telling that make the ending even more spooky.
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Also creepy is a tale called "The Malefactor's Bloody Register" about a vicious midwife and three young women from the workhouse who are "appointed" to her "care." All the girls are named Mary, and as the story tells us, "One lived. One died. One was lost." The hook is in finding out what happened to which Mary. Mary Jones (Karen Schlag), Mary Clifford (Elizabeth Seabolt) and Mary Mitchell (Anne Zimmerman) are all treated horribly. Tied up, beaten and thrown into perpetual darkness, the Marys tell a dreadful tale of their lives as indentured servants (the midwife does unspeakable things with a pair of scissors!). All the while, the midwife's son John Brownrigg (Paul Drake) defends his monstrous mother's actions. Told by all four characters, who have been put into a sort of Greek chorus by director Jennifer Decker, the story is surprisingly moving, given that we don't see any of the action and the whole thing is told in past tense.
But without question, the star of this evening is Patricia Duran, who tells two different narratives. "Joan of Arc in Autumn" teaches the audience a great deal about the history of the saint where she came from, how she became a leader, who her family was. But it also imagines what she was thinking when she finally was handed over to the terrible English, who burned her at the stake. Dressed in a dark shift, Duran makes a pretty and powerful Joan. She may or may not be completely sane, which is, of course, part of her saintly triumph.
Dark Matter: Five Gothic Tales of Horror
Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch, 832-418-0973.
Through July 21. $10-$12.
Duran is even better in the only true comedy of the night, "Lucy and the Mystery of the Vine-Encrusted Mansion." Lucy is a teenage girl with a very big imagination. She dreams up a tale about a girl who lives in a spooky mansion with her brother and her creepy cousin. And since Lucy's bright enough to spend her afternoons writing stories, she's also smart enough to have an enormous vocabulary. She just doesn't always use it in the most poetic way. The moon "coagulates"; illness is a "fatal imflammaroty effuigence" and, of course, there's the "vine-encrusted" house. Duran makes a wonderful, energetic teenager, the sort of smarty-pants who takes herself very seriously and is all the more charming for it. Ryan Kelly makes a handsome brother Daniel, and as the deranged distant cousin Diccon, Wayne Barnhill is hilarious.
The lost art of storytelling has been found. These tales add up to an unusual, entertaining production.