Stage review: Powerful storytelling fuels 'Electric Baby'
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Sometimes even a critic is charmed into analytical silence. No, make that enthralled and also warned.
Not that I can't think of ways to explain "The Electric Baby," but even if I were right, it might dull both its delicacy and its strength. Perhaps it's enough to say that it's a world premiere from Quantum Theatre, set quite coincidentally in Pittsburgh by its playwright, New Yorker Stefanie Zadravec.
On the surface, it's intricate enough. Natalia is a Romanian with a magic baby who glows with an unearthly light. "Romanian," "unearthly" -- that could be the setup for a gypsy or vampire melodrama, but this baby is benign, exuding implied strength. It's Natalia who's spiky and full of aphorisms, tending the baby with love and addressing the audience with wisdom and warning.
Simultaneously, there are two couples, middle-aged Helen and Reed and young Rozie and Dan. They all come together with a literal (and fated) taxi crash. Dan is killed but remains weirdly, sporadically present, perhaps not just in Rozie's mind. The father of the magic baby, Ambimbola, a Nigerian, is hospitalized. Rozie, a waitress and sex worker, gets involved with others. Meanwhile, the festering loss of a child some years back is poisoning the marriage of Helen and Reed.
"Stir and complicate," the recipe might read at this point. But that hardly accounts for the surprising relationships that develop, all in the implied glow of that magic baby and under the wise and witty canopy provided by the author.
And by Quantum, of course, the company that makes the unusual setting of its plays an intrinsic part of their effect. In this case, it's an assembly room in the Waldorf School of Pittsburgh, a progressive institution in Bloomfield. The room is decorated with fanciful murals and a starry heaven, to which Quantum has added a variety of platforms with some hidden tricks, evocative hanging light fixtures and an audience, stacked up in front and to the side.
The set is further tied together and linked to the murals by a long, crocheted green ribbon that winds this way and that, much like the unpredictable path of the story. It's no surprise to learn that the set designer is the imaginative Stephanie Mayer-Staley. C. Todd Brown and Richard Parsakian contribute lighting and costumes, and Ryan McMasters accompanies live with enhancing music.
In what is frequent Quantum style, the show starts (on Sunday, anyway) with light in the high windows above the set. Then this natural light dims, letting the stage lights narrow our focus, shaping the story.
That story is told in some 20 scenes, one flowing instantly into the next, moving from one acting area to another. The course of the story progresses similarly, with one inset fable after another, thickening the folkloric atmosphere. In her role as sporadic narrator, Natalia shares with us various folk remedies that sound like wisdom and oddly echo the surprising turns of the story.
Meanwhile, that unearthly baby, glowing silently in its crib, with its skin too sensitive to endure human touch, bathes everything in real and metaphoric luminescence. Beyond that, you will have to make of the baby what you will. Like the play, it resists easy explication.
Who better to mother this strange child than Robin Abramson, who is luminous herself? Her Natalia is a piquant mix of young mother and wise tale spinner, addressing the audience with stern concern and a glint of humor.
Ruth Gamble gives Rozie all the jittery, defensive, in-your-face zest she demands. We enjoy her outrageous self-assertion, even as we can see she is hurting from unrevealed bruises.
Laurie Klatscher and John Shepard play Helen and Reed. She has an uncompromising truculence than descends sometimes into whine (it's hard to like Helen) and rises eventually into honesty. He is spot-on as the bewildered male, trying to do the right thing.
Ambimbola, the tale-telling Nigerian who turns out to be the baby's father, is played by Monteze Freeland with easy, bemused charm. And Nick Lehane turns in a skilled job, shifting instantly among three roles, the spooky, stuttering Dan, compassionate Don (a nurse) and officious Dave (a waiter).
The whole thing runs only about 100 minutes without an intermission. It seems like less but also more. That simplicity growing out of complexity (or vice versa) owes a lot to the generally unobtrusive direction of Daniella Topol. We remember her from previous affiliations with CMU and City Theatre, since then she has become a specialist in helping to birth new plays. That expertise is evident.
On the one hand, "Electric Baby" is about the power of story ... no, fable ... or even myth. But on the other, as an audience member said during Sunday's post-show discussion, it's also like an adult pop-up book, with just that mix of fun and surprise.
First Published April 4, 2012 1:41 am