The conceit of “On the Verge” is fascinating, inviting us, as all first rate speculative or science fiction does, to see our past through different lenses.
On The Verge, by Eric Overmyer. Directed by Jim Petosa. Staged by the New Repertory Theater at the Charles Mosesian Theater, in the Watertown Arsenal on the Charles, through May 25.
By Cashman Kerr Prince
First staged in 1985, Eric Overmyer’s play On the Verge revolves around three Victorian women who travel to Terra Incognita. As the play progresses we, and they, learn that this is not uncharted land they are visiting but their future time. Embarking in 1888, they land in 1955 before the play ends.
The travelers are: Fanny (Adrianne Krstansky), a woman who struggles to be a good housewife but has a bad case of Wanderlust; Mary (Paula Langton), a brassy woman who struggles to maintain a sense of propriety despite the odds; and Alex (Christine Hamel), a younger woman who chafes at the restrictions of Victorian society. The play opens with the women twirling their parasols about the stage, flying, as it were, through space. Slowly they, and we, begin to realize this is “chronokinesis” (as Mary calls it) rather than merely spatial displacement.
At first, the women talk about traveling solo, but once their journey hits its stride they begin to feel their way into a group dynamic. We see Fanny’s conflict when she writes to her husband, Grover, and eventually tears up the letter she cannot send back in time. Alex struggles to be hip in each successive generation. Mary strives for liberation as well as intellectual renown in the eyes of her fellow explorers in “The Boston Geo.” The catch is that she and Fanny repeat the same tales of past exploits in each time period. Krstansky’s Fanny is a more complex character, but Mary and Alex (despite the efforts of Langton and Hamel) remained superficial.The three women are on stage for almost the entire play and the language is difficult; I left thinking those were hindrancess to the performance rather than hurdles cleared. The result was a lack of emotional honesty essential for an exploration of female bonding (a subject that is surprisingly rare in the theater).
The trio is joined by Benjamin Evett, who plays all the male roles over the course of the play in increasingly lengthier stage appearances — Alphonse, Grover, Nicky Paradise. Evett invests each character with physical idiosyncrasies — each is different from the other (from the shy broker Grover to the Wally Cleaver of Grover to the Dean Martin of Nicky Paradise). His was the strongest, most varied, performance of the night.
The set was minimal and quite versatile. The backdrop was an architectural assemblage of wooden café chairs painted white. Movable metal frames covered in bubble defined the acting space, expanding and contracting to suit the scene. I found the use of bubble wrap to be ingenious; it was visually interesting without overwhelming the actors or the action. Balloons and giant glass spheres, once filled with fortune cookies and another time filled with Cool Whip, flew in at key moments in the play. Props consisted mostly of café chairs and the clear plastic parasols and rucksacks the women carried. Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco uses little raw material but makes a big dramatic impact with it.
As for the costumes (Nancy Leary, designer), the women wear a variation on Victorian dress. Long skirts with armature underneath (or so it appeared), button-up boots, and dress tops that resembled tailored field jackets (although without layers underneath) were the costume for most of the play. Add to this canvas backpacks which could provide a picnic or a music-box as needed, and pouches or equipment (monocle; Man Ray-style egg beaters) hanging from a belt, and the obligatory pith helmet. These are adventurers out of time, and the clothing showed it.
Given the costuming, staging, and subject, it is hard not to think of this play in the context of Steampunk. That genre, like Overmyer’s play, revels in Victorian culture and dwells in the intersections of speculation and historical revisionism. Whereas Overmyer tries to remain true to the periods his play traverses, Steampunk embraces anachronisms. The travelers find hand-crank egg beaters but it is not clear they ever come to know what they are. The usual jokes about taboo and ritual object abound; even at play’s end, the women engage in one final “rotor” of the egg beaters dangling from their belts before going their separate ways.
Overmyer’s play is more about its own language and this becomes increasingly apparent as the play proceeds. Alex is a fount of malapropisms; at first they come across as Freudian slips, perhaps voicing her own repressed desires, eventually she adapts to reality, blurting out words and phrases that reflect the women’s voyage through time. In addition, this is a meta-play with quips about the theater. The three women look back to Chekhov, at times even back to Shakespeare’s weird sisters in the Scottish play (most obvious when they huddle around the glass globe of fortune cookies). The self-consciousness of Overmyer’s language defeated the performances and the staging. Director Jim Petosa’s pacing was a bit slow; the result is that some of the lines and performances came off as labored.
Overmyer indulges in verbal “osmosis,” as characters recite a litany of new-to-them words and phrases, the language calling attention to the disjunction between the travelers’ embarking and current time. It gives rise to plenty of amusing word-play, like asking what Burma Shave has to do with Burma, or Congoleum with the Congo. But the concentration on linguistic hijinks comes across as self-serving logorrhea rather than effective or affecting drama.
The conceit of the play is fascinating, inviting us, as all first rate speculative or science fiction does, to see our past through different lenses. By play’s end I had a somewhat better understanding of each character, but I still didn’t feel like I had learned anything particularly illuminating about them, myself, or the world. The resolution suggests that some women are born in the wrong time, and that seems a meagre windup to a promising beginning.
Cashman Kerr Prince holds degrees in Classics and in Comparative Literature from Wesleyan University, Stanford University, and l’Université de Paris 8 and is currently affiliated with the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. Outside academic circles he is a cellist with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra and also serves on their board. You may have read his concert reviews and articles for The Boston Musical Intelligencer over the last number of years. He is happy to expand his horizons and review theatre, dance, music, and CDs for The Arts Fuse.