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There's violence in Isabel's past, and now things seem to be spiraling out of control again. Ultimately, an edgy situation turns into a nightmare in Mark Cornell's chilling 'Sprucehaven B.'

Theater Reviews (NYC): ‘Sprucehaven B’ and ‘Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator’ at FRIGID New York

Sprucehaven B by Mark Cornell, directed by Akia

Sprucehaven B is a chilling exploration of the corruptibility of the human spirit. Echoing sensational news stories of recent years, Mark Cornell’s hourlong descent into darkness builds subtly but inexorably towards its distressing revelations – including a startling surprise twist – through reverse chronology, Act Two providing backstory for Act One. Thanks to sharp, realistic dialogue, the technique works well, and Rising Sun Performance Company‘s FRIGID Festival production, cogently directed by Akia, gives it the thoughtful pace and jarring accents its needs, marred only by some meandering passages in Act Two.

Elizabeth Burke and Samantha Turret play the troubled Isabel at two different ages with equally acute skill and passion. In Act One, 30-ish Isabel (Burke) and her estranged husband Tommy (Tucker Bryan) meet in a bungalow at an isolated resort on a Maine island after a long separation. They’ve come with diametrically opposed purposes, she to rekindle the relationship, he to prevail upon her to sign divorce papers. Complications arise from their long history.

“I hate the fucking summer people,” Tommy tells Isabel, trying instinctively to connect in some way as they observe the resort’s wintertime emptiness. These two are still in lust. They also have that secret vocabulary of unique references that couples develop, and Burke and Bryan are very good at making this feel authentic. But he has settled down with another woman, and with his house-painting work drying up, the high school football star is planning to leave the area, driving the ex-cheerleader to desperation.

“You can’t do this to me, Tommy.” There’s violence in her past, and now things seem to be spiraling out of control again. But ultimately, one of the two takes complete control as an edgy situation turns into a nightmare.

Stagehands in maids’ aprons (a nice touch) redress the set for Act Two, set 17 years earlier in the same bungalow, where 13-year-old Isabel (Turret) is reuniting with her father (a touchingly effective Richie Abanes) after a long separation of a different kind. Slowly and icily the backstory of Isabel’s troubled adult life becomes clear. It’s not a pretty sight, but you don’t want to look away. Turret is mesmerizing.

 

Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator by Todd Brian Backus, directed by Ben Ferber

Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator could have been an ideal release of tension after the troubling Sprucehaven B. (I saw them on the same night.) But it doesn’t live up to the deliciously goofy promise of its title. Todd Brian Backus’s period fantasy-comedy gleefully incorporates poetry, old-style speech patterns, fight choreography, dance, and even a rap number into its over-the-top story of paranormal doings and literary sleuthing. But though a number of these elements are well-done in themselves, they don’t hang together. The story is, to use a technical term, all over the place.

A speedily paced opening promises a bloody comic-book joyride à la the great imaginative sagas of the Vampire Cowboys. The play posits the young Emily Dickinson (Heather Harvey) as an investigator of the supernatural, trained by none other than Edgar Allan Poe (Daniel Morgan Shelley) in a dynamic reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Assisting Emily and serving as narrator is Helen Hunt Jackson (Marina Shay), a poet and activist who was a real-life classmate and friend of Dickinson’s.

Seeking a mysterious fiend, the trio pursue clues to New York City, where they enlist the aid of the Fox Sisters. Those famous mediums, who in real life, of course, turned out to be frauds, are played by a single actress, Briana Sakamoto, through masks – a clever conceit, though it tends to muffle her voice.

Emily Dickinson (Heather Harvey) interrupts Helen Hunt Jackson (Marina Shay) during a Lenormand reading in 'Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator.' Photo by Todd Brian Backus
Emily Dickinson (Heather Harvey) interrupts Helen Hunt Jackson (Marina Shay) during a Lenormand reading in ‘Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator.’ Photo by Todd Brian Backus

Structural issues aside, the play’s prime problem is that nothing about its versions of these literary giants resonates with what we know about Dickinson and Poe. And we know a great deal. Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman also appear, but no more recognizably. Comic-book distillations or exaggerations can be great fun, but they depend on the presence of some fundamentally authentic reference to the reality. That’s missing. In particular, Harvey’s Dickinson blasts through her lines so fast she hasn’t time to give them any heft, and recites from the poems without conveying any of their depth.

The show does have potential. It’s a fun idea. Ironically in such a fast-paced romp, the scenes that work best are the slower, quieter ones with space to get to know the characters – Helen doing a card reading for a reluctant Emily, or getting to know Poe on the train ride.

Indeed, Shay’s Helen steals the show. She’s the only fully-formed character, funny, engaging, totally present in every moment. If the rest of the work built on that kind of energy, it could be the twisted-history winner it wants to be.

Sprucehaven B and Emily Dickinson: Paranormal Investigator are part of the 2016 FRIGID Festival. Visit the website for tickets and information about all 30 shows.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases.Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires.Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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