Who is this brooding, bearded European exile moping about in a Chicago apartment building? Why does his cheerful female friend wear a white hat that actually lights up? What’s with this dark witch lurking about and this chatter of a curse that can only be broken by true love?
Why, it’s “Beauty and the Beast,” only updated — charmingly, if a little windily — as a new play called “Glassheart” by emerging playwright Reina Hardy. Rorschach Theatre, Washington’s leading fantasists, are giving the script a loving embrace at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, where a quartet of actors are putting an engaging spin on Hardy’s swooning talk.
Make no mistake: “Glassheart” is a very chatty play, and at 21 / 2 hours, this fractured fairy tale won’t be for everyone. Then again, the show doesn’t pretend to be for everyone; it’s being staged in one of the Atlas’s intimate black box theaters, currently arranged to seat 64.
Although it sometimes sounds as if she’s writing in circles, Hardy has a flair for off-key insights. That’s most apparent in the dialogue she creates for the thoughtful, fetching, slightly addled young woman who stumbles into the lives of the Beast and his loyal lamplike friend.
Her name is Aiofe (pronounced “Eefa”), and actress Natalie Cutcher — draped in half a dozen layers of blue, from jeans to scarf, by costume designer Lauren Cucarola — delivers the character’s looping, twisting speeches with the delight of a child blowing bubbles. That description shortchanges the worldliness and dark undercurrent that will make Aiofe easily relatable to a generation weaned on the back stories of psychically scarred superheroes, something that Hardy suggests lightly and Cutcher plays effectively.
Hardy makes nice use of Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” but plot is not the strong suit. In fact, the play cruises agreeably for a long time without showing any urgency about coming to a head. Yet for the most part it works, because Hardy’s long scenes give the actors so much to say and do. Megan Reichelt beams (the pun is hard to escape) as Only, the Beast’s lantern sidekick, and Andrew Keller discovers much to work with as the Beast, even though Hardy is chiefly interested in the play’s women. Keller displays a royal, reserved air and erupts in sudden growls and pounces, all with surprising grace.
The going is a little heavier for Lynette Rathnam as the Witch; Rathnam and director Lee Liebeskind don’t seem quite sure how to give this sinister figure a satisfying snap. And if Liebeskind’s placement of actors for this in-the-round staging sometimes seems ungainly, at least he and scenic designer Robbie Hayes have a nice simple trick up their sleeves between acts.
Now and then, Only hears a garage band rehearsing in the apartment downstairs, and the dimly heard rock songs by composers Aaron Bliden and Mark Halpern help a lot with the funky, poetic aura of this play. Who knows where Hardy’s career is headed, but the romantic “Glassheart” certainly has music in its voice.
by Reina Hardy. Directed by Lee Liebeskind. Sound design, Veronica J. Lancaster; lights, Katie McCreary. About 21 / 2 hours. Tickets $30, or $15 for students, seniors and groups. Through Feb. 16 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit atlasarts.org.