FOURTH WALL DOWN
The Drowning Girls
by Beth Graham, Daniela Vlaskalic, and Charlie Tomlinson
June 22- July 14 @ Wild Carrot /8pm
All proceeds from the first two performances will go to benefit A.L.I.V.E STL, a local woman's advocacy group.
The play gasps to life with Bessie, Alice, and Margaret (English women of the early 1900s) trying to remember their lives. Though fragmented, the tragic truth is slowly unraveled: each unassuming, lonely and on the cusp of ‘spinsterhood’, they’re surprised to find Love, along with an avenue toward societal worth… Marriage to “a man of independent means”.
Now, no marriage is easy, and they are set-upon in authentic English style; but what a fairytale it was to them. Nevertheless, it quickly becomes apparent (perhaps to the audience far before the characters), that their Prince Charming harbors sinister intent. The play, after all, is entitled “The Drowning Girls”. Within the cold and wet space of the stage, dialogue jumps impressively between their figment interactions, diary entries, letters, and courtroom records. Their dark savior is the infamous George Joseph Smith: one of the first convicted ‘multiple murderers’ in English history. They piece together their hardships in a place beyond sense: the Limbo/Purgatory of the stage; and participate in the sentencing of their beloved for uxoricide. Like unresolved spirits, they cycle and replay, waiting: haunting his hanging trial.
At its heart, TDG is about female agency, social norms perpetuating abusive cycles, and exploring what lies "beyond the veil". It does more than accentuate the plight of disenfranchised women in Edwardian society. Like the scandalous “Brides in the Bath” headlines, it is a character-study of The Absent. Remembered fondly only after tragic deaths, and even more fondly once the public grew eager for bloody Justice; the papers delved into the unimpressive lives of these ‘easy marks’. Average to a fault, each was swept away from reason, enchanted by escapist romance: a man who was, in hindsight, a sociopathic con. What power did he have? England flocked to see the black-widower trial. With the advent of forensic methodology, evidence mounted, and the public mused over what entrancement could so blind naïve wives to their husband’s obviously predatory nature. Even in advocating for the slain, England (and the world) solemnly shamed them. The girls are left to agonize in afterlife introspection over what they, the victims, did wrong, or if they should have seen it coming.
TDG’s Absent character is George; but his presence is felt throughout. Bechdel fails. “The Man” lingers in the air, like a chill shrouds phantoms, or a predator circles prey. We add ‘him’ as an outside force. Performing in-the-round, in untraditional spaces, and our meta-theatric leanings necessitate visible clockwork, which we embrace. With our director/resident artist (Nick Henderson) representing stagehand and George (as the Looming Patriarchy), the symbolism of being the executive producer and only male on the team seems apt. Skirting the perimeter of the stage/pool, George controls the environment of his captive paramours. By night’s end, we wonder if this is his Purgatory too, or his Inferno. He pulls on noose ropes and pumps water, always reliving his sins, working and pushing the play forward like Sisyphus on his rock.
This is the first in our "Installation" Series: exploring both gallery and theatre art forms by allowing them to lend context to one another. The performance functions not unlike the plaque next to an exhibit. In turn, the sculpture/set houses and facilitates the storytelling.
As a deconstruction of the ubiquitous lighting 'grid', the intricate, complex structure of a hexagonal (mimicking an antique bathroom tile) lighting chandelier quickly comes to represent the struggle of opposing forces, continuation of cycles, and the synecdoche intrinsic to cramming a life of memories, hopes, fears, loves and betrayals, into a single, final synaptic pathway. This is the setting of our play: the last impulsive thought of George Joseph Smith’s victims, echoing and rippling out into eternity.
*Presented under the auspices of Actors Equity Association, the professional union for actors and stage managers in North America #equityworks