The Caged Bird

Angela Carter's story bogs in places, but as a play it's bright, inventive, and beautifully acted

Word for Word is one of those rare theater troupes that make a city unique; the company's simple presence here improves San Francisco. Since 1993 its actors have performed verbatim-fiction theater -- meaning raw, unadapted stories, without edits -- and its 10-year anniversary show is a sort of onstage reunion. Founding members who are still active, founding members who are no longer active, and actors who didn't help found the troupe but played with it in the early days (and are still damned good) crowd onto an austere Victorian set to perform the fascinating (and wordy) Angela Carter gothic story "The Fall River Axe Murders."

My running theory about Word for Word is that the company does better with plain, Chekhovian writers -- Tobias Wolff, Eudora Welty, Alice Munro -- than with colorful ones. Great plain writers cram a lot of life into their stories, and Word for Word's contribution is to add color and detail, to make the stray line about a romance (in Munro) or a bullet (in Wolff) as vivid as a paragraph in Faulkner.

Angela Carter can't be accused of plainness. She's a wild, cluttered writer in love with the expressive possibilities that 20th-century English has left behind. She uses words like "perambulate" and "viscera." In "The Fall River Axe Murders" -- about Lizzie Borden -- she describes the Borden house, the heat of the day, the pear trees, the clothes worn by women in the American 1890s, and a trip Lizzie once took to Europe, before getting to the part everyone cares about, which is the hatchet-massacre by Lizzie of her father and stepmom.

The Cuckoo's Nest: Stephanie Hunt plays 
an expressively mad  Lizzie Borden.
Shane McKay
The Cuckoo's Nest: Stephanie Hunt plays an expressively mad Lizzie Borden.

Details

Produced by Word for Word

Through Sept. 7

Tickets are free-$27

437-6775

www.zspa ce.org

Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Building D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F.

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Carter, in fact, never quite reaches that part: She flirts with it. "Fall River" is a long, gothic flirtation.

This caginess poses a problem for a group dedicated to producing her story with no edits. The scenes are visually vivid enough, but have no suspense. A theatrical production can't get away with Carter's longueurs, and even under the clever direction of playwright Amy Freed (The Beard of Avon, Freedomland), Fall River bogs in places. It can't be helped.

Still, Freed's show is bright and inventive and beautifully acted. John Balma and Amy Kossow are perfect as the Borden parents. "They are Mr. and Mrs. Jack Spratt in person," Carter writes, "he tall and gaunt as a hanging judge and she, such a spreading, round little doughball." Andrew Borden is a former undertaker, a real estate investor, and a cartoon of a Victorian penny pincher; Balma plays him with wooden, Lincoln-esque decorum, in a booming voice. His wife, Abby Borden, is a glutton, and Kossow plays her as a mean, pinched stepmother helpless in the presence of sweets. "When she tackles a sticky brownie, oozing chocolate," writes Carter, "then she feels a queasy sense of having gone almost too far, that sin might be just around the corner if her stomach did not immediately palpitate like a guilty conscience." Kossow palpitates, trying to resist, and then licks the brownie in question, sensuously.

Stephanie Hunt also does brilliant work as Lizzie herself, living in "the thin condition of New England spinsterhood" -- more than 30 years old but still under her father's roof. Hunt has an expressively mad way of staring out from behind her frizzy, disheveled hair. Lizzie has "'peculiar spells' ... moments of disconnection," and confides about them to a pettish family friend, Miss Russell, played with nicely tuned solicitousness by a bespectacled Nancy Shelby. "It must have been something you have eaten," she says. "Was it yesterday's supper?" Yes, perhaps that's all it was.

The cast is larger than necessary -- four actors populate an "ensemble" apart from the named characters -- to fit as many founding members in as possible. The extra stage business makes sense only because "Fall River" is a typically excessive Angela Carter story. Freed puts the ensemble to good use near the end, though, playing a clutch of Lizzie's pet pigeons, which Andrew slaughters with an axe and the gluttonous Abby wants to cook into a pie. The members sit haplessly in one corner of the stage, under an odd green light, cooing and fluttering their arms. They somehow sound exactly like pigeons, "the kind that look like shuttlecocks and go 'vroo croo,' soft as a cloud."

Jim Cave's sultry lights make the weather of Fall River feel not just hot but humid; Mikiko Uesugi's plain set, with its akimbo-looking doorways, gives the show a fairy-tale feel. The atmosphere of Fall River, in fact, may be its biggest success: Freed and her cast and crew have captured the mixture of fairy tale and Victorian true-crime that Carter herself achieves.

In real life, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of killing her parents. Evidence loomed against her, but the 19th-century Massachusetts jury seemed to shy away from the notion that a quiet, Christian woman would commit such a bestial crime. That's why the pigeons, in Carter's story, are a stroke of brilliance: They add a strong fairy-tale element as well as a realistic motive. When she died at 67, Lizzie left most of her money to animal-care organizations.

 
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