Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Immerse Yourself in Bag & Baggage’s Latest

Bag&Baggage The Drowning Girls- Autumn Buck as Alice, Jessi Walters as Bessi, 
Jessica Geffen as Margaret- Casey Campbell Photography

By Tina Arth

What’s not to love in The Drowning Girls at Bag and Baggage? Right before Halloween, we get a true-crime story of a psychopathic mass murder, three dead brides, always-timely feminist themes, and phenomenal acting. There is, however, one problem with director Scott Palmer’s latest venture into the world of innovative local theater – the first act is simply too long for its content. Perhaps the problem is one of pacing – the Playwrights Guild of Canada lists the running time of the entire play at 80 minutes, and B&B’s first act alone runs almost an hour. Luckily, the swifter pacing, clear narrative, and disturbingly detailed exposition in Act II more than compensate for the first act’s problems, and the show ends on a series of riveting images that stay with the audience long after the stage goes dark.

The tale is set in early 20th century England, based on the crimes, trial, and ultimate conviction of George Smith, a smooth talking Lothario who made a living by marrying a variety of women young and old, rich and poor, desperate and romantic – then killing them for their estates or insurance policies. The three women whose murders led to his discovery were all drowned (“accidentally”) in a bathtub after their weddings. He was undone because, despite changing his name frequently, one girl’s family recognized the pattern after reading a news article about another drowned bride. Much of The Drowning Girls, however, is not really about George Smith (alias John Lloyd, Henry Williams, etc.) – it is about the three brides: Alice, Bessie, and Margaret. What motivated these three women, and many others, to leave their families, marry a total stranger, accept his word that he was a man of independent means, and sign all of their worldly goods over to him? As the show makes clear (and the first act reiterates, perhaps one or two times more than is strictly necessary) turn of the century England was not kind to spinsters, and a woman without a husband and family was a social and economic pariah. A look at worldwide events as well as some current American political realities makes it clear that in some ways we just haven’t come that far yet, and it may be a long time before feminist themes are passé.

The actors (Autumn Buck as Alice, Jessica Geffen as Margaret, and Jessi Walters as Bessie) play not only their principle roles, but also every other role in the play.  The eerie effect is amplified by watching the women portray first themselves (dripping, with hair like seaweed cascading in their faces), then their suitor/killer (the proposal scene is chilling), and finally the prosecutor and a surrogate drowning victim simulating a death scene for the court’s benefit. A favorite scene for me was the one where three hotel maids describe the killer’s process – the dialogue is highly expository, but delivered in hushed, confidential tones that bring it vividly to life.

The set and lighting are remarkable – a series of dangling white rectangles, properly lit, give the entire stage a rippling, underwater feel that helps the audience to imagine the horror of drowning, and the simple 3 bathtub set ensures that the audience will not lose sight of the story’s core elements. 

Despite several moments of dark humor, The Drowning Girls is not a good-time show. If you go, be prepared for an intense evening that will leave you shaken – and don’t worry about the slow first act. By the end of Act II that will be the least of your thoughts!

Bag & Baggage’s The Drowning Girls is playing at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main Street, through Sunday, October 31st, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 2:00pm.

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