The set-up: I fully admit it: Lisa D'Amour's Red Death (2001), currently playing at Studio 101 via Mildred's Umbrella, left me baffled. What the hell's going on? That's not to say there aren't plenty of reasons to see this, foremost among them being that any work by D'Amour (Anna Bella Eema, Detroit), whose theater voice is distinct and disturbing, warrants a viewing. So go, and see if you can make more sense of it than I.
The execution: Part mystery, part quest, Red Death is aswirl in metaphors, cyphers, and more metaphors. Although seeming to progress in a straight line, this intermissionless "thriller in seven scenes" circles back on itself, twists about in irony, finds humor in existential ways, and ties itself in knots. It's never boring, that's for sure, thanks to D'Amour's sure and steady hand in delivering quirky characters, odd situations, and elliptical dialogue that piques our interest in the eternal mystery that lifeguard Jane (Christie Guidry-Stryk) searches for.
Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's masterful horror story "The Masque of the Red Death" (which you can read in 15 minutes, even allowing for stops to savor Poe's richly baroque prose), D'Amour riffs on Poe's color scheme, the name Prospero (Poe's dissolute prince who barricades himself and his thousand courtiers within his sumptuous castle to keep out the plague), and the story's overall theme that death comes to all.
We meet Jane, in lifeguard mufti, as she's being interrogated by a Detective (Ronald Reeder). She's grilled in front of "the panel," the nameless, hazy, multi-international organization she works for. She's evasive in her answers to basic questions, and isn't very concerned by the creepy nature of it all. She's done something they don't approve of, and the outcome could be ominous indeed. What has she been searching for? "I was searching for the origin of evil, the root of denial, and the basic human weakness that causes us to fear death," Jane explains with all the emotion of ordering a ham sandwich. (Ham sandwiches play a big part in her story.)
Although this heavy explanation is rife with some sort of meaning, it grows more elusive as we're introduced to her backstory, as we witness her 20-year search for Prospero (Jon Harvey) and the destruction she causes along the way. Jane's clueless dad (Rod Todd) fills us in on her youth in Grass Lake, Michigan, but these tantalizing glimpses of the "why and where" only come to fruition later.
In each succeeding scene, she insinuates herself more and more into Prospero's family, befriending wife Connie (Karen Schlag), burning down their vacation home and, later, murdering wayward daughter Lucinda (Bree Bridger). Masquerading as a maid on Prospero's yacht on the Adriatic, Jane discovers Prospero's more deadly, surprising secrets, but, when her lifeguard skills kick in, saves Connie from drowning. She cannot save Prospero.
What does this all mean? Is Jane the "red death" of the title, the face of reality, the faceless plague whose swathe of destruction knows no barrier? Or is "the panel" the arbiter? I certainly couldn't figure it out, but maybe D'Amour wants it that way. She keeps the mind reeling, trying to figure out the connections, whatever they may be. Following Jane all these years, the Detective meets her in the sewers between the Texas/Mexico border, where Jane's been hiding out since Lucinda's murder. He wants her back "on track" or he'll have to take her to the panel to face judgment. She wittingly evades the man wearing scuba gear and swim fins. She's been chasing Prospero all over the world. She's on track, even though she's been at it for decades. In this Hitchcockian worldview, life is certainly ironic. And terribly inscrutable.
Guidry-Stryk's Jane is sleek and equally inscrutable. With her lipstick-red mouth, pale skin, and mane of raven hair, she is either the face of death or the walking dead. (Unless I'm reading this play completely wrong, which I have no way of knowing.) For all Jane's dastardly deeds, though, we're always on her side. She's on a mission, yet is so clueless (and afraid?) it's endearing. Schlag's Connie is so brittle she may crack, which she does after vodka and childhood memories. Especially effective are Reeder's spooky, efficiently determined Detective and Todd's wistful Dad, who keeps losing his daughter over the years. Jane promises to come back for a longer visit, but never does.
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Helping everyone in this quest is the smooth direction from Jennifer Decker, who keeps the scene and costume changes at lightning pace. Although the color scheme isn't as vivid as Poe's, Jodi Bobrovsky's faux-perspective slatted background panel is evocative of ladders (to heaven?) or life with pieces missing. If there's a reason for the newspaper back curtain - upon which colors will be projected later - I can't figure out what it is.
The verdict: Though I'm at a loss with this play, the work sticks to you thanks to D'Amour's unfailing craft. Even when overly obtuse, she works magic by bringing details of everyday life into her cloudy "other." She assuages the amorphous quality of Red Death with a solid grounding of reality and sharp comedy.
She makes us pay attention. What we take away is up to us. I just wish she'd have scraped away the obscuring clouds a bit more, so the play underneath, which I know is fresh and novel, might be more on track.
Red Death continues through October 25 at Mildred's Umbrella at Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. Purchase tickets online at www.mildredsumbrella.com or call 832-463-0409. $12-$20.