Death led to pleasurable puzzle of ‘Dark Room,’ but the ingenuity of Bridge Rep makes it lively
The Multicultural Arts Center is stunning, a Bulfinch-designed former courthouse with Victorian details and a wedding-worthy courtyard, and Olivia D’Ambrosio’s Bridge Repertory Theater knows exactly how to use it. At Valentine’s Day, her Juliet was up on an actual balcony, with Romeo below; in “Mrs. Packard,” the ballroom-like space became a horrific 1861 insane asylum that mirrored an upper-class descent into hell.
In the current “Dark Room,” D’Ambrosio’s world premiere production of a George Brant play, there’s a site-specific use of the Arts Center that is so simple, clever and apt that it alone is enough to make you wish for more works there, specifically more works by Bridge Rep. The moment happens to come in one of the most delightful and satisfying of of the 11 scenes Brant and D’Ambrosio have created around the life, death and photographs of Francesca Woodman, a New York artist who committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22.
You don’t have to know anything about Woodman to enjoy and appreciate “Dark Room,” but images from her work and therefore moments from her life shape the dreamlike narrative and pop up throughout the play; there’s a book of her work in the hall across from the performance space with key photos identified by Post-it, and flipping through after the show adds a visceral jolt to the experience that will make the play stick with you even longer than it might on its own – and there’s plenty there to haunt you.
Haunt you, yes. Whatever Brant envisioned more than five years ago when coming across Woodman’s work at a writers retreat, his long collaboration with D’Ambrosio has resulted in a puzzle box mystery with exhilarating moments of horror iconography, the first of it provided by the skill of dancer Jenna Pollack, a largely silent figure who clues us in quickly to the recursive, obsessive nature of the story: As with all ghosts, there’s something we need to see and understand before we’re getting free of this dark room. Death and the dead lie heavy on this play like a fog – except that D’Ambrosio is a better director than to employ a literal fog machine – but it’s all in honor of life, the same way the horror of D.M. Thomas’ “The White Hotel” was in realizing that the person you discover piece by piece and come to love is gone, existing now only in shards you can observe but never live.
This isn’t to say “Dark Room” is depressing or a slog. The very ingenuity of the presentation is invigorating, including the playfully thoughtful touch D’Ambrosio revealed in a post-performance conversation: hiding a tiny bucket of ice cubes over a bathtub so as the play goes on, the ice melts and drips through drilled holes almost unnoticeably, but at just the right time. Special credit has to go to the scene of three buried women, which is surprisingly among the play’s lightest and most lively, with a fun sense of physicality for actors confined to small boxes. In a sentence no one expected to read, Deniz Khateri’s tremulous leg is sheer genius.
A touch of camp also makes bright performances the default, which is engaging but can evoke winces. D’Ambrosio has cast well, though, and many of the actors project right through the artificial brightness. (During the scene in the cafe, keep an eye on Jade Wheeler – as though you couldn’t!)
The director is also well served by her crew: set designer Ryan Bates and costumer Chelsea Kerl, with lighting by Stephen Petrilli and sound by Elizabeth Cahill. In speeches made necessary by a bleak arts funding environment, D’Ambrosio tells audiences that this is a $100,000 production that, with the hours and skills of those involved, would properly have cost $1 million. That’s around the entire arts budget of the City of Cambridge.
That’s why tickets for the remaining four shows (Monday through Thursday) sell for the price tiers of a “subsidized” $14, “half-price” of $45 and “true cost” of $105. There’s also a “true cost plus” option of $525 per seat – which, if the standard purchase price, would get all involved with “Dark Room” pay of $20 an hour. Taking in this work by Bridge Rep at the Multicultural Arts Center is not just an appreciation of the work of Woodman, but of the company and location that makes her work and story come to life.