Friday, February 17, 2006

Review: The Wooden Breeks

As a child, I remember being both horrified and captivated by the idea of a certain invention to guard against premature burial. Above ground, it was a bell on a pole connected to a wire. Below ground, the wire was inserted into a recently interred coffin. The idea being that if someone were actually still alive, they could tug on the wire from inside the coffin, ring the bell, and alert the gravediggers not to start laying any headstones just yet — that is, of course, if the victim didn't die of fright immediately after realizing they've been buried alive. All very creepy stuff, although I guess the fear of being buried alive is something that's haunted us for ages and why not use some of that Industrial Revolution ingenuity to solve the problem, right?

Without doing any additional web searches at this late hour, I don't know whether a) this device was ever actually made, b) it was ever actually used, or c) the bell ever rang because someone was tugging on it from six feet under.

But that seems hardly the point, for — real or imagined — the bell device is a powerful metaphor for the feeling of isolation in life and the need to communicate and connect with others. It stands at the center of a Dickensian play running at the Lucille Lortel Theatre called The Wooden Breeks. (Breeks, I've learned, is old Scottish slang for breeches or pants, and while I don't remember it being spoken in the play itself, you can see how the phrase might be a euphemism for a coffin.)

The play takes place during the latter part of the 19th century, first in a "real" Scottish town and then, for most of the remainder, in an imagined (still Scottish) town dubbed Brood. The play is told by a storyteller with the equally evocative name Bosch (Hieronymus, anyone?) who loved a woman who left him for a "brief but unavoidable errand" just after she agreed to marry him, never to return, leaving behind her son by another man. The storyteller begrudgingly spins Odyssean yarns to the boy about where his mother might've run off to, and the bulk of the play consists of one such "chapter" in which the man and the boy actually step into the frame of the tale — literally, thanks to the stage design.

This world of Brood is populated by a Gothic collection of characters: A man who's locked himself in a tower, content to learn of the outside world only from a collection of reference books deposited through his mailslot. A former pub mistress, played with charming pallor by Veanne Cox, who's still wearing widow's weeds nine years after the death of her daughter and won't open up the public house for the townspeople to drink. (Two people whom one might call "buried alive.") Also: A spindly gravedigger. A world-weary preacher. A painter and a laundress — a pair of lovers, Romantic in the capital-R, Berlioz sense as much as the modern one. Their costumes, too, are definitely worth noting: Most of them have implements of their trade literally attached to their outfits. A small shovel on the gravedigger's back, pages of manuscript woven into the preacher-cum-town-historian's cloak, the back of a chair — for sittings, perhaps — on the painter's back, a washboard positioned like a bodice on the laundress, and spigots on the bar matron's hat.

Into this poor and bleak town comes a saleswoman named Ms. Spoon who gently warns the people about premature burial and hawks the aforementioned bell device in the process. Besides the seduction of the sale, she also inadvertently woos some of the men in town. This woman is played by the same actress who was the storyteller's missing fiancee, and Bosch and the boy are forever debating whether this character in the story they've invented is actually the one's lover and the other's mother. The line between how much power each has over what's real and what's imagined seems intentionally blurry.

While much brooding about lost loves and missed opportunities and distances left uncrossed fills the play, it's also packed with a healthy bit of plot that I don't think I'd be able to retrace here. It took a while to get into the action, but after a while, it really started to pay off with some dazzling moments that play with the idea of reaching out, ringing our bells, worrying that no one is out there to hear them. (Kind of like the web at times, right?)

The acting may hew a little too close to caricature, but the writing manages to keep the characters complex and human. Since so much happens during the course of two and a half hours, I was left wondering if a repeat viewing would reveal a work that's richer or poorer than at first. Is all the hurrying around stage to distract us from the spareness of it all or would more become clear the second time around? I don't know, but it's nice to see a play that prompts that question in the first place. I certainly felt throughout the performance like the themes were rich and thought provoking. I just wonder whether it would've been better to have experienced them more in my heart than in my head.

Those criticisms aside, I'd definitely recommend the play, which officially opens Tuesday. The playwright is Glen Berger and the director is Trip Cullman, who also did Dog Meets God and Swimming in the Shallows recently.

(Seeing this play has made me excited to see the next installment of PBS's Bleak House miniseries this Sunday.)

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