Strange monkey business in ‘The Gallerist’

January 25, 2012

Theater review: ‘The Gallerist’ at Atlas Performing Arts Center

So, was the comely Selena Featherstone possessed by a pygmy capuchin monkey named Iago?

Not the sort of question one wrestles with on a typical night out. But then, “The Gallerist” strives mightily to avoid any contact with the typical. A fusion of gothic horror, Freudian intrigue and lesbian romance, Fengar Gael’s drama, in a world premiere by Rorschach Theatre, is tantalizingly oddball, though it would seem to require a more effervescent treatment than director Catherine Tripp’s often muted approach allows.

Is “The Gallerist” intended to go bump in our night? Or more sardonically to ape — sorry — the Bram Stoker and Daphne du Maurier novels of yore? When, for instance, the lovely actress Louise Schlegel, portraying agonized Selena, raises her nightgown to calf height to reveal traces of her monkey metamorphosis, it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to be repulsed or convulsed. And by extension, are we meant credulously to take in the story recounted by Selena’s modern-day descendant, the seriously creepy Bertram Plover (Scott McCormick), who carries himself as if he were a constipated nephew of Vincent Price?

Maybe it’s because of my infatuation with the work of Charles Ludlum and his highly successful sendups of the shocker genre, such as “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” that I kept hoping “The Gallerist” would shift into a more intense, mocking gear. But even with its solemn tone, the production, at Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, does generate a compelling momentum and keeps you on your toes.

It’s McCormick’s character who, from a New York jail cell, narrates the story of Selena, which takes place a century earlier in what seems a part of London accessible by train from PBS’s “Downton Abbey.” At her wits’ end, Selena’s mother (Sara Barker) beseeches Selena’s cousin Laura (Blair Bowers) to allow Selena to live with her after Selena massacres a roomful of her family’s pet birds (all named after Shakespeare characters).

Laura, an artist who’s ditched by her snooty art-critic boyfriend (David Winkler) after he decides she’s talentless, takes Selena in and begins to paint the birds Selena describes from memory — paintings that will end up in Plover’s hands 100 years on.

“Perhaps it’s true that artists capture the souls of their subjects,” says Selena, who is soon exhibiting signs that the soul of her uncle’s dead monkey has taken hold of her. The symbiosis between Laura and the perhaps hysteria-gripped Selena cements a physical attraction between them — which makes you wonder if it’s that suppressed need in Selena that has awakened madness in the first place.

Using proper British accents (and wearing a few costumes in need of an ironing), Tripp’s seven-actor ensemble leads us in and out of the dual epochs; the scenes in which the times intermingle on David C. Ghatan’s representative set of stacked cages are especially smoothly handled. Schlegel and Bowers have by far the most demanding roles, made trickier by the scenes in which Selena, in “Exorcist” style, must seem to spew Iago’s verbal bile. They both hold their own in a promising piece that manages to go out on a limb, and yet still feels as if it could be allowed to venture out a little bit farther.

The Gallerist

by Fengar Gael. Directed by Catherine Tripp. Set, David C. Ghatan; costumes, Lauren Cucarola; sound, Veronica J. Lancaster; lighting, Brian S. Allard; props, Justin Titley. With Megan Reichelt, Matthew Schleigh. About two hours. Through Feb. 19 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Visit www.atlasarts.org or call 202-399-7993.

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Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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