by Jason Jacobs · August 21, 2014
Before Emily Schwartrz’s comedy thriller opens, an actress (the wickedly good Kate Nawrocki) sings music hall songs from a bathtub, adorned in white balloons as bubbles. Another (Delia Baseman) pecks at an old fashioned typewriter in time to the music, in front of a set of painted flats invoking 19th century illustrations (the versatile set is designed by equally versatile Nawrocki). The prologue promises a celebration of old-fashioned entertainment, and in this respect, Strange Tree Group delivers in spades. What lies beneath the artifice, however, remains something of a mystery to me.
Inspired by some of the great Victorian villains—I detected notes of Dorian Gray, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Sweeney Todd—Schwartz’s Dr. Crippen is a mild-mannered gentleman with a three-way personality disorder. Divided into a Public, a Private, and a Fantasy personae, the three Crippens fractiously share the stage and narrating duties. After his first wife dies in childbirth, Crippen weds a scheming harridan, Cora. As the marriage turns sour, he begins an affair with his deceptively sweet secretary, Ethel. The plot thickens as Ethel becomes pregnant while Cora becomes increasingly horrid. Crippen commits a fumbling murder, followed by a hilariously gross dismemberment. Enter a dull-witted Scotland Yard inspector, setting off a cross-Atlantic chase.
Schwarz’s script prances from prose to rhyme, tableaux to song, Grand Guignol to camp, sparing no theatrical gimmick before justice is served. Director Jimmy McDermott keeps the spectacle going nonstop, aided by inspired props and clever costumes (designed by Kitty Campell and Baseman, respectively). Musicians Elizabeth Bagby and Addison Heimann contribute the melodies for this melodrama. All the actors are fully committed to the style and silliness, and there is talent galore in service of the production.
I applaud these Chicago-based impresarios for their showmanship, but I wish I found more to care about in their show. I wanted more insight to the central conceit: why does a personality fracture into three parts? Before committing murder Crippen asks: "who stops you from achieving your dreams but yourself?” and this line struck me as a germ of truth. But besides bickering among the three Crippens (Scott Cupper, Matt Holzfeind, and Stuart Ritter), I never perceived a man truly at battle with himself. I saw three actors in search of a character, trying to relate through mirrored gestures and physicality, but unable to merge into the role together. Schwartz’s creation is mostly a reactive chap, whose only “dream” is to replace one insufferable wife another. And while I reveled in Nawrocki’s vicious Cora, I had qualms laughing at such an unattractive female stereotype. As the play I ended, I couldn’t ascertain its point-of-view on the lurid events. I found little to take away, except the hope that Artistic Director Schwarz and her colleagues in Strange Tree Group can develop more substance to go with their impressive style.