The first of Robert Cousins’ four-part series on fictional teenage sleuth Lacey Ward makes its Philadelphia debut with the Phenomenal Animals in a short six-performance run. Self-described as a “less-than-wholesome Nancy Drew parody” in the format of “a choose-your-own-adventure performance,” Lacey Ward: Girl Detective is an ambitious concept that doesn’t live up to its intriguing description.
A convoluted everything-but-the-kitchen-sink plot mixes in far-flung references to social class and snobbery, science and technology, corporate greed and psychotropic ingestibles, teen sex, creepy fetishes, and pedophilia with a central murder mystery, in which the titular character (Kate Sparacio) investigates the death of a local bee colony. At several points along the way, the cast members break through the fourth wall with so-called “obstacles” and ask the audience to decide which of three paths the narrative should follow. The choices, and minimal audience interaction with the solicited responses, are largely irrelevant and contribute little to the spontaneity or excitement of the protracted play.
Cousins’ unnecessarily long-winded and elaborate script left the cast continuously tripping over its oddly verbose lines on opening night, with stilted off-rhythm deliveries and direction by Rob C. Thompson that lack the sharp wit and comic timing necessary for a successful farce. Ensemble members Grant Bolopue, Devin Arroyo, and Taylor Cawley play multiple roles of different ages and genders, from Lacey’s father and boyfriend, to a beekeeper, lawyer, housekeeper, laborers, and businessmen, relying mostly on changes of clothing and accessories to distinguish one from another. Costumes, props, lighting, and sound are all makeshift designs on a nearly bare black-box stage. A highlight of the show is an amusing carnival-style gorilla painting representing the “Spirit of the Fields, [a] local crop deity,” by scenic artist Katie Gaffney, which speaks from behind the curtain in homage to The Wizard of Oz.
As Lacey says in the second act, “I need to know that this is leading to something . . . some bigger plan.” So do I. Perhaps the upcoming episodes will offer further character development and a tighter, funnier script that will tie up the loose ends left tangled and dangling here. Along with its world-premiere productions of the three remaining installments in the Lacey Ward series, the young experimental company will offer its takes on Euripides’ The Bacchae in June and on the works of Edgar Allan Poe in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in September.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
Lacey Ward: Girl Detective plays through Sunday, May 1, 2016, at the Phenomenal Animals, performing at Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5 – 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, purchase them online.