Monday, February 26, 2007

PLAY: "The Girl Detective"

It's a very ambitious thing, to adapt a metafictional short story. What works well on the page in parable, or metaphor, or parallel is hard to translate to stage -- harder still when the work is geared so specifically for the page itself. To go through all that effort to convert a difficult story means that you're bringing passion to the project, and I wish I had nothing but cheery things to say for Bridgette Dunlap's efforts to recreate Kelly Link's short story, The Girl Detective. But while the show begins at a brisk and breezy tempo, filled with omniscient narrators whizzing in and out of scenes and bank-robbing tap dancers stealing the show, the longer the play continues, the harder it is to figure out what exactly the point is. In a story, you have the luxury of rereading a section; on stage, the work has an obligation to be clearer to its audience -- at least, it should be, if your goal is to entertain.

Here's the kicker: despite the complicated layers of the show, the story has a lyricism that does carry over well into the theater, and the plot--adapted originally from Grimm's Fairy Tales (story 133 - "The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces") and merged with the idea of Persephone's Underworld by Link--has a mystical beauty to it. The jazz dancing brings Chicago to mind (albeit an amateur version: the actors haven't perfected Whitney Stock's choreography yet), and the secretive journeys across rivers to hidden dance-halls is very Prohibition-era. Even when you're completely at a loss, the catchy lines ("Only heroes and girl detectives go to the Underworld on purpose") and the catchy dances keep you tuned in.

I'm not a fan of the play's resolution, and I find the ambiguity of many of the scenes to be what some might call a "negative choice" in the theater. The work is very intellectual, which means that there aren't clear actions in the scenes, and as a result, the already inexperienced cast ends up speaking most of the lines, rather than acting them. Many deliveries are either too much over the top, or underplayed, and the only person who really shines is Kathryn Ekblad, who plays the Girl Detective. At its heart, the show is a play about a girl looking for her mother; it's very telling that all the bells and whistles fade away when the Girl Detective at last gets the opportunity to rhapsodize about her missing parent. Her counterpart, Guy (solidly but blandly played by Ben Wood), is stuck narrating from afar (a tree, actually), and what he needs is never clear, unless what he's after is indifference.

I respect the director's desire to adapt The Girl Detective, but she doesn't have the budget to be as dreamlike or visual as the piece requires (the opening montage makes the work seem campy, not surreal). Until she finds a way to make the drama more theatrical (and better synchronizes the cast), this show is a mystery that cannot be solved.

[First posted to New Theater Corps, 2/26]

No comments: