‘731 DeGraw Street’ at Venus Theatre Company by Amanda Gunther

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Highly evocative, emotionally gripping, stunning new work with much artistic integrity behind it comes to the stage to close out the 13th season at Venus Theatre Company on C Street in Laurel. With all the chilling atmosphere of thrillers like Angel Street, the rich substance of a Victorian romantic drama, and the twisting madness of Dickinson’s poems this fully-charged intense piece of theatre is a gutsy move for closing the season, but is executed so well that I was thankful to be along for the ride. Playwright Claudia Barnett weaves a fascinating tale that pulls from a myriad of elements— truth of Kate Stoddard and the murder of Charles Goodrich, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and the musings of Virginia Woolf in the same vein as her notion that Shakespeare had a sister— all of these elements culminate into a highly stylized but incredibly compelling piece of theatrical inspiration that will keep you hanging on the edge of your seat until the play’s twisted conclusion. Directed by company Founder and Artistic Director Deborah Randall, it is the epitome of a final production for the season titled Free your Mind [and let the girl talk].

Ann Fraistat as Kate. Phot by Curtis Jordan.
Ann Fraistat as Kate. Phot by Curtis Jordan.

Closely examining the way in which Barnett unfolds this fantastical tale draws conclusion of creative genius and beauty entwined together in a manner most intriguing. The non-linear way in which the plot unfolds, first sweeping backward in time and then forward, in and out of reality, is an intriguing way to present the disjointed life of Kate Stoddard, allowing the audience to view her in all her states of mental clarity and lack thereof. Barnett’s writing is fluid yet drives the meaning behind the show without ever feeling gratuitous. Her inclusion of quirky created characters enriches the nature of the production and adds a depth to this woman’s insanity.

The design team all round works in conjunction to augment this unique experience for the audience; creating moments of stellar visual beauty with undertones of darkness and lunacy coursing through it. Lighting Designer Kristin Thompson creates moments of subdued blue between scenes where characters are still moving, plunging them into a dreamlike, or perhaps nightmarish state. This is particularly true of Charley’s character, Thompson setting him in the mood-lighting to imply that he might only exist alive in the recesses of another’s dreams.

Sound Designer Neil McFadden sends a pulsating current through the house between scenes with the hodgepodge of musical interludes. McFadden uses varying styles of music, everything from classical snippets to electronic and house music mixed with found sound, even music that sounds Victorian era inspired; a cacophonous blend that brilliantly underscores the more peculiar moments of this production. Set Designer Amy Rhodes crafts clever visuals into the set; the cemetery stone with the roses being a personal favorite. Rhodes has a knack for casting in the tennis-court style theatre that really serves the show in the best way possible.

But it’s Director Deborah Randall, serving as the show’s Costume Designer and Milliner that really takes the creative cake. Infusing Steampunk into her design work for an edgier feel to the overall production quality; the costumes she creates are whimsically surreal and balanced precariously between that space of reality and dreaming. Randall’s wild use of colors, rich and earthy, make the stark contrast to the white costumes pop all the more. At first it appears Randall has cloaked our leading lady all in white in hopes of washing away the sins of her crime in the purist color, but that twisted notion falls to the wayside as Kate Stoddard is experienced in reverse, little layers of color creeping into her wardrobe until she reaches her earliest state. Randall’s work with nearly three dozen hats in this production is breathtaking, each more eccentric and mind-boggling than the next. Fitting the theme of shifting identities and personalities, each hat becomes a persona, infiltrating the actor that wears it in a striking manner.

Deborah Randall and Amy Rhodes. Photo by Curtis Jordan.
Deborah Randall and Amy Rhodes. Photo by Curtis Jordan.

As the show’s Director, Randall once again inspires her intuitive genius for group ensemble work. While there is clearly a lead character in this work, the group works no less formatively as a collective. The emotions and raw truths that she coaxes from this ensemble of performers is startling in a thought-provoking way and really draws the audience into the reality of the play.

Amy Rhodes, teaming up with Randall in the ensemble, plays a series of unique and quirky characters, each one distinct with an accent or mannerism that separates them from the others. Rhodes mastery on various accents is impressive, helping to further distinguish her characterizations. Watching the eager excitement and curiosity play out across Rhodes’ face during the production is another gem in this production. Randall is quite the fierce presence when appearing as Stoddard’s mother in the prison; cold and calculating, while looking like something out of a Burton creation in her faerie-esque costume. The pair fill in the blanks of ‘supporting characters’ superbly in this production.

Matthew Marcus, the only male in the show, holds his own against these talented women, bringing a brash and unfeeling rawness to the character of Charley Goodrich. Marcus plays the character with a coldhearted severity that cuts like a knife, making him almost villainous. The arrogant charm that radiates through his body is like a venom seeping out of his polished words and calculated moves. The anger that burbles within his character is so intense that it almost makes Stoddard’s insane decision to kill him seem justified. Marcus gives a riveting performance, ripe with acid when interacting with Kate (Ann Fraistat) and truly creates an antagonistic catalyst for this production.

Fraistat is a performing phenomenon. Encapsulating a full scale of emotions with every breath she draws is sensational acting at its finest. From the shattered desperation in her eyes and voice when she pleads and appeals to Charlie, to the murderous lunacy that pulses through her veins; there is no consistency to what’s coming next but every feeling, every thought, every word is delivered with a blast of intensity that shakes the room. When the full blown madness hits, both early on and later in the piece, Fraistat is consumed by it in every sense of the word and it is both haunting and harrowing to watch. The unfathomable depths of emotional turmoil that is perpetually churning within her is nothing short of perfection in this dynamic performance.

Ann Fraistat (Kate) and Matthew Marcus (Charley). Photo by Curtis Jordan.
Ann Fraistat (Kate) and Matthew Marcus (Charley). Photo by Curtis Jordan.

731 DeGraw Street is an absolute must-see! The work being done at Venus Theatre is original and compelling and you will not find theatre like this anywhere else in the area.

Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.

731 DeGraw-Street, Brooklyn or Emily Dickinson’s Sister plays through December 1, 2013 at Venus Theatre Company – The Venus Theatre Play Shack
21 C Street, in Laurel, MD. For tickets, call (202) 236.4078, or purchase them online.