Spenger – Atlas Performing Arts Center

Remaining Performances:

Tuesday, July 22 at 9:00 p.m.

Friday, July 25 at 6:00 p.m.

Sunday, July 27 at 4:15 p.m.

They say: Woman moves through expectation and disappointment. Created with Gertrude Stein’s text, this play is filled with shadow and intrigue. Can romance exist when a girl is oppressed? Watch her hope, play and fight for her heart in a patriarchal society.

Joshua’s Take: Don’t let the specter of Gertrude Stein’s obtuse, avant-garde compositions deter you from seeing Small Batch Theatre Company’s Lucretia Borgia: A Play. While this production does rather loosely adapt an unclassifiable “play” from the godmother of American expat artists, it’s Stein the feminist icon, not Stein the formal experimentalist, whose spirit animates this performance. Combining dance, shadowplay, a dash of slapstick and just a hint of narrative order, Lucretia Borgia offers an impressionistic meditation on female identity. And if even that sounds too academic or metatheatrical for your tastes, be assured that whatever self-conscious gestures there are here are either playful or quickly fade into the background.

Lucretia Borgia is clearly preoccupied with names and labels, beginning with how the play manipulates the most basic titling conventions of theater. We are sometimes told that Lucretia Borgia is “A Play,” other times “An Opera,” the start of “Act I” and “Part II” are signaled and re-signaled nonsensically, and the abstract, poetic dialogue consistently ruminates on what Lucretia’s other names might be or might have been. Such neat categories, of course, are leaden with potentially stifling expectations, and it’s these expectations that the production’s three Lucretias (Katharine Ariyan, Elizabeth Scollan, and Sadie Angel Lockhart) are wrestling with. The semi-historical Lucrezia Borgia Stein drew on (and Victor Hugo before her, as well as many other artists) is the product of legend and gossip, a sexually predatory black widow assisting her notorious family in its pursuit of power. But here, the drama is purely physical and psychological. There’s talk of a “twin” that may or may not be killed, which hints at self-destruction, and the only male presence is a booming offstage voice that interrupts and reprimands the women.

Despite the scrambling of formal signals, the play actually breaks down into three fairly distinct sequences. While each has its strengths, the most memorable is the middle portion featuring Scollan. Her instruments on stage are a dress and a chair. At first these are just props, and then dance partners, but finally it’s the objects themselves that seem to be in control, with Scollan creating the illusion that the chair is pulling her back into its embrace. It’s the kind of move a great physical comic like Buster Keaton would use as a gag, but here it’s played with palpable anguish. Chairs seem to carry most of the psychological burdens Lucretia is fighting to escape in this production, beginning with an ornate armchair elevated on a platform. This platform, which tethers all three sequences in the production, sometimes seems to be a child’s play set, especially when Ariyan and Lockhart scamper around it during the third sequence. Other times it might be an altar or a throne, a nod to the court intrigues that spawned the work’s namesake; in a few somber moments, it seems to be a gallows.

Director Leah Englund-Brick is an M.F.A. candidate at Towson University, and the performers are all Towson students or recent graduates. The production was funded by Townson’s College of Fine Arts & Communication Dean’s Office, Department of Theatre Arts, and Graduate Student Association.  But while Lucretia Borgia is certainly the work of developing student artists, it is also a serious and ambitious piece of theater. There’s nothing college-y here except some theory-speak in the program notes. That such a production can spring from the union of art and academia speaks well for a partnership that too often seems to merely institutionalize mediocrity.  There’s a level of polish  you won’t see at many Senior Thesis shows— or many Fringe shows, for that matter.

See it if: You’re in the mood for some serious, surprisingly accessible experimental theater.

Skip it if: You prefer the Borgia family as interpreted by Showtime rather than Gertrude Stein.