Review: Making an atypical love connection
By Celia Wren
Wednesday, Apr. 18, 2012
Does the heroine of "John & Beatrice" need a psychiatrist, or does she need a lamp with a genie in it? That's a question you'll ponder as you watch Carole Frechette's intriguing but arid play about love and loneliness, now on view in an intermittently engaging production from the Hub Theatre in Fairfax.
An heiress who lives like a hermit in a 33rd-floor apartment, Beatrice has developed arcane rules for her occasional dealings with people, and she's a compulsive sharer of dubious anecdotes about her past. Such tics seem to cry out for sessions with a $200-an-hour professional. And yet, some of Beatrice's traits - her habit of putting suitors through ritualized challenges, for instance - belong to the realm of fairy tale. She's part Scheherazade, part Sleeping Beauty, part Rapunzel, with a little bit of Miss Havisham thrown in for good measure.
That tightrope walk between realism and fantasy is the principal appeal of "John & Beatrice," written in French by Canadian playwright Frechette and performed here in an English translation by John Murrell. In the Hub production, staged by company artistic director Helen Pafumi, the ambiguity initially creates an appealing atmosphere of mystery. Beatrice (Jenna Sokolowski) has put up posters offering a reward to any man who's able to "interest, move and seduce" her. Answering the call is John (Eric Messner), who calls himself a bounty hunter and has brought a suitcase full of props to aid his mercenary courtship. As the two loners haggle over rules, swap stories and dabble in threats and role playing, the blurring of genres - are we in slice-of-life or once-upon-a-time mode? - ratchets up the suspense.
Sokolowski's bold but calibrated portrait of Beatrice further fuels the momentum. Sporting a flimsy blouse, a blue-and-lavender skirt and leggings - this poor-little-rich-girl evidently does her shopping at a Capezio outlet - Beatrice is a fidgety waif whose face brims with emotions: anticipation, giddy excitement, cynical satisfaction and fear. When she informs John that her late father, a plastic-garbage-can magnate, bequeathed her the entire neighborhood ("from the souvlaki place to the end of the block"), she executes a shimmying curtsey that radiates smugness.
Messner's John is much less defined - he does a lot of frustrated and menacing glowering - with the result that the character seems less a person than a narrative device in a suit. The blunt interpretation has the unfortunate side effect of emphasizing the contrived aspects of Frechette's fable: Lacking two fully realized personalities to anchor it, the play often veers between preciousness ("I read somewhere that emotions germinate in humidity. Like mushrooms," Beatrice volunteers at one point) and abstraction ("What does that mean, to 'love one another'?" John demands in one of many moments that position the characters as stand-ins for humanity).
Those two extremes - the quirky and the archetypal - find expression in Elizabeth McFadden's eye-catching set, with its stark, frosted window, floor littered with full and empty water bottles (Beatrice is always thirsty) and armchair cozying up to a bowl of red apples (undertones of Snow White and the Garden of Eden). The evocative sound design, by Neil McFadden, complements the play's storybook motifs with eerie wuthering effects.
Mixed bag though it is, "John & Beatrice" demonstrates again that the Hub is willing to tackle offbeat fare. This is, after all, a theater that premiered a play about gay penguins and celebrity hawks (2011's "Birds of a Feather"). Adventurous companies live by a maxim that governs many a fairy tale: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.