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They say: “They tried to make it look like an accident, but it was murder. Dozens of stories swirled around the notorious Cenci family…incest…greed…violence. Who was Beatrice Cenci? Victim or Murderess? Sinner or Saint? Violated Virgin or Calculating Seductress?”
Ian’s Take: “A medieval Lizzie Borden – are people going to be interested in that?” So asks an historian who apparently hasn’t been to many Fringe Festivals, in the prologue to Georgetown Theatre Company‘s Belle Parricide. Sex? Violence? Incest? Torture? Murder? This play may be following a checklist of precisely what Fringe audiences are interested in.
The story of Beatrice Cenci is well documented in nearly every artistic medium available: painting, sculpture, poetry, theater, and film. The particulars lend themselves to the fascinations of dramatists and artists. Cenci was a young 16th century noblewoman, the daughter of Francesco, a cruel and sadistic man who had physically abused her, her brother, and her stepmother for years, and raped his Beatrice as well. Those three, along with Beatrice’s lover, conspired to murder Francesco, but were caught after the deed was done. They were tortured and executed by the decree of the Pope, over the vocal objections of the populace, who were well aware just how justifiable this particular homicide was.
What can Georgetown Theatre Company bring to a story told and retold so many different times? A woman’s touch.
Despite the large number of works based on the story, not a one has ever been created by a woman. So the theater commissioned five short plays from five female playwrights to bring a new perspective to the story. The result carries the usual strengths and weaknesses of omnibus collections. The tone, approach, and quality varies widely from piece to piece; but if you don’t care for whatever you’re seeing right now? Things will change up before long.
They start with one of the strongest of the five, Lori Fischer‘s Thoughts of Rom, the most straightforward piece here, which depicts Beatrice (Madeline Ruskin) and her stepmother Lucrezia (Jacinda Bonaugh) in the country castle where they have been exiled by the angry Frencesco. Here, they hatch the plot, with Beatrice egging on the reluctant Lucrezia, who remains reluctantly bound by her marriage vows, as Fischer deftly illustrates the cycle of abuse.
There are interesting commonalities here: all five playwrights choose to leave out the brother, while all but one also leave Francesco out of the proceedings. The one that does include the father, Monique LaForce‘s contemporary retelling (Thoughts of Rome) with Francesco cast as a drug-addicted, bling-sporting sexual deviant, may actually suffer from his inclusion. There is a thread of dark comedy in this piece, but the cartoony oafishness of his character undercuts the seriousness of his evil.
Alia Faith Williams‘ Belle Phantasm shows the aftermath of the execution, an eerie ghost story with a mute, black-shrouded Beatrice stalking about the public execution square with halting, snake-like predatorial motions, zeroing in on the men who tortured and killed her and her family. Ruskin dominates these plays, appearing as Beatrice in all four of the ones that include her as a character, but none more decisively than in this literally haunting, wordless performance.
Lucy Tyler‘s The Operators strays farthest from history, recasting Beatrice as an abused modern-day 14-year-old attempting to report her father’s crimes to an abuse hotline, where the operators are helpless beneath their veneer of caring. The failure of societies 400 years apart to deal appropriately with abuse and find justice for real victims hits with heartbreaking immediacy in what may be the best of the five. That ends up being a problem for Rebecca Nesvet‘s somewhat anti-climactic The Cenci Portrait, batting cleanup: It lacks the narrative thrust of the preceding works, departing from the story entirely to depict a trio of writers and artists from history talking obliquely about a portrait of Cenci and their own lives.
See it if: Your attention span won’t allow for staying engaged in plays that take longer than 15 minutes each.
Skip it if: You have no interest in a medieval Lizzie Borden.