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The French folk tale about Bluebeard, the serial spouse-killer whose latest bride tries to avoid meeting the same bloody end as his prior wives, was Quebecois dramatist Carole Fréchette’s inspiration for The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs, a psychological mystery getting its U.S. premiere at Spooky Action Theater, which increasingly specializes in such international curiosities.
In this updated telling, Grace (Casie Platt, returning to the stage from a long hiatus) has just married Henry (Michael Kevin Darnall), an enigmatic and wealthy man, following a courtship that was brief enough to alarm her mother and sister (Mindy Shaw and Carolyn Kashner, respectively.) Henry gives Grace the run of his extravagant home, attended by his full-time housekeeper Jenny (Tuyet Thai Pham, radiating a Nurse Ratched-like disapproval though she’s obligated to obey Grace’s commands). But there’s one tree whose fruit Henry forbids his wife to eat.
There’s a narrative and often visual opacity to this darkness-shrouded production that frustrates, even though the performances—especially Darnall’s volatile seducer and Pham’s imperious servant—are compelling enough, and Helen Murray’s direction inventive enough, to make you squint to try to puzzle it all out. When characters speak to one another, then report that conversation to a third character some time later, those shifts in time and location are clear and propulsive.
Murray has staged The Small Room in the round, and set designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson uses three slatted, stained-wood cubes—two standing up like wardrobes, one lying like a large coffee table—to suggest a large and forbidding mansion, relying on Brittany Shemuga’s low-wattage lighting scheme and David Crandall’s gurgling sound design to bring a sense of menace to moments when Grace is exploring the house alone. There’s even a nice, subtle observation of class and privilege that comes from Grace’s desperate attempts to buy Jenny’s silence using pieces of jewelry she’s plucked off her own yoga-and- green-juice-fortified body. “What lovely skin you have, Jenny,” says Grace, offering her a gold bracelet. “The color is subtle but intense.” That describes Fréchette’s observations on trust and intimacy, too.
To June 10 at 1810 16th St. NW. $20–$40. (202) 248-0301. spookyaction.org.