On the Verge
For a seemingly feminist work, "On the Verge" displays a curious affinity for the episodic, the fantastical, and the extreme; as a method of storytelling, this leaves plenty to be desired (tonal consistency, a narrative through-line, some sense that what we’re watching is meant to be taken seriously if even as a comedy) and brings to mind not feminist literary explorations a la Caryl Churchill but rather so-called "boys’ own" pulp adventures.
The play is by Eric Overmyer, who may be better known for his work on TV series such as "Homicide: Life on the Street," "The Wire," and "Treme." Those productions featured intricate plotting and a street-level sense of reality, while still leaving the door open to humor and the machinations of chance. By contrast, "On the Verge" is pure fantasy, and it soars away from reality with the swiftness of a toy balloon slipped of its string.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily. The plot, such as it is, follows the exploratory venture of three Victorian women -- not exactly "ladies," insofar as they buck the prevailing notions of the time about what their gender can, and ought, to do, though they cling to civilized ways as best they can, shunning trousers in favor of starchy skirts and serving up a proper tea (with china cups and teapot, no less) in the dense copse of a jungle. These three first come whirling into view with upraised umbrellas, like a trio of Mary Poppinses... if, that is, Mary Poppins were ever to trek into the jungle and mountains, and use her umbrella like a machete to literally whack her way through the bush.
The three do represent different personality types: Fanny (Adrianne Krstansky) is more a member of the old guard than her companions. She’s left a husband named Grover at home, and she’s appalled at the future the trio find they are heading into as they climb higher and higher onto a peak located in "Terra Incognita." This future seems to trickle into their minds like an invisible stream, bringing them presentiments of historical events that have not yet happened; the future also leaves them trinkets (each woman collects an egg beater as the journey continues, as though in reward for the miles they’ve walked) and, in the form of bubbles that descend from above, delivers them other treats from times to come such as Cool Whip -- which one character mistakes, in her word-jumbling confusion, for Noxema.
Youthful Alex (Christine Hamel) is this latter character. Her malapropisms amount to a running gag, and her daring proclamation that she does, in fact, wear trousers on occasion creates something of a scandal, if not a rift between herself and the others. If Fanny is reluctant to forge forward into a future she finds abhorrent, Alex (as befits her youth) relishes the prospect.
The third member of the expedition is Mary (Paula Langton), for whom the travails of the explorer’s life seem both the price of admission to the prestigious club where she mingles with other (mostly male) adventurers, and the currency in which the club members trade. (Who has eaten the most exotic dish from the club’s kitchen? This seems a point of interest, even as the three snack on provisions packed all the way from England.)
This triptych isn’t quite the archetypal one of Crone, Mother, and Virgin, but they do bear some general similarities. Overmyer seems less interested in playing with traditional forms and types, though, than chasing them right off the rails: The play grows increasingly, and conscientiously, more odd as the women hike and climb their way from the jungle, into the Himalayas, and deep into Terra Incognita, encountering an array of strange creatures along the way. These are all played by Benjamin Evett, who first appears as a cannibal that takes on the name, appearance, and general knowledge of the German he’s recently devoured. Later, Evett returns as a Yeti, a rockabilly Troll, and the apparition of Fanny’s husband, Grover, as well as several other characters.
All this might be taken for a fever dream or a tangle of metaphor, but these are not women "on the verge" of anything as easily comic or culturally common as hysteria. Rather, they’re stepping right off the edge of What Was and hurtling into What’s Coming. I did mention that this play involves time travel, yes? Those bubbles and concepts from the future don’t simply come swirling down from the void: They result from the women traveling not only through various landscapes, but through time as well, trudging out of 1888 and into the 1950s the way any other explorer would tramp his way from point A to point B on a regular map. (The destination is signaled well in advance by sound designer David Remedios’ use of mid-20th century radio standards, though he’s jiggered the sound to give it a remote, echoing quality, like something from a nightmare or emanating from a vintage crystal radio set glowing the in dark in the year 1949.)
The set’s bareness also reflects that this isn’t any typical journey on foot. Scenic designer Cristina Todesco seems to want to reduce the physical environment to the visual equivalent of that Cool Whip that the women discover as an "artifact" from the future; translucent panels (they look rather like bubble wrap on metal frames) slide around to give the environment differing shapes; three chairs serve as all-purpose props; snow comes fluttering down from above (along with other things, such as those bubbles from the future). Mary Ellen Stebbins’ lighting design helps fill in the idea of Place (a verdant hue suggests the deep jungle at a couple of points), but this production is resolute that the environment be that of the mind. (As though to underscore this, a wall of stacked chairs lurks in the far background, like a vision from Dali’s subconscious.)
Luckily, for those prone to cognitive vertigo, Nancy Leary’s costumes provide stable reference points for where, chronologically speaking, we’ve been and where we arrive. The ladies’ garb is prim, layered, luscious in a wool-and-dark-palette sort of way; Evett’s costumes range from the contemporaneous (a German pilot) to the classic (a lounge singer) to the zippily absurd (that rockabilly troll).
Suitably enough, Overmeyr’s script is full of scintillating language, sometimes whirling past like a blizzard and, other times, beautifully sculpted. But the artfully chosen vocabulary and intricately constructed dialogue might as well be written in Joycean "schizophrenese" for all the sense it sometimes makes... or rather, often fails to make. The acting styles used here also feels deliberately tweaked into a too-flat, too-bright otherness, more declamatory than naturalistic.
If the horrid future is all gleaming plastic and rigid angles -- a future that Fanny, for one, can accept even while declining to embrace it -- then the bubble in which the play itself seems trapped (airless, artificial at every turn) has, itself, descended from the same sky as the bubbles and the temporally displaced artifacts: Modernity, Overmeyr suggests, was already well into its hideous, ravenous flowering back in those olden days. It simply took a while for the physical world to catch up.
"On the Verge" continues through May 25 at the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, located at 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.newrep.org