A little bit of theatrical surrealism can go a very long way. That maxim holds true for “The Wedding Dress,” the 1943 play by Brazilian writer Nelson Rodrigues now generating dreamlike atmospherics at Spooky Action Theater. A milestone work in the history of the Brazilian stage, “The Wedding Dress” fragments and shuffles place and time, objectivity and subjectivity, as it teases out its mystery-psychodrama plotlines. At its best, at least in this production, it suggests “Gaslight” as directed by Luis Buñuel, with a little bit of “ER” and “The Front Page” thrown in for good measure. But as one non-linear conflict or riddle follows another, stretching the production out toward the 90-minute mark, the style becomes a little trying.
However, the show is a treat for the eye, thanks to director Rebecca Holderness, working with a creative team that includes set designer Vicki Davis and lighting designer Maja White. In previous Spooky Action offerings such as “Einstein’s Dreams” and “Kafka on the Shore,” Holderness brought out richness in three-dimensional space. She does the same on the set of “The Wedding Dress,” whose deep recesses, littered with odd images, such as mannequin limbs and a spiky sculpture, vaguely suggest an abandoned museum. In this staging, she also makes canny use of color, turning the production into an eerie fantasia in white and red.
Both shades are apt, given the urban traffic accident that critically injures the central character, a woman named Alaide (Mundy Spears), at the start of the play. As Alaide is shuttled off to an operating room where she is tended by surgeons in blood-red scrubs — a white gauze curtain that sometimes sweeps diagonally across the stage helps evoke a hospital environment — her hallucinations and not-always-accurate memories mingle with straightforward narrative.
Among the inscrutable figures we meet is Pedro (Randolph Curtis Rand), who is sometimes Alaide’s husband and sometimes a handsome stranger stalking through her fevered mind. Almost as enigmatic are the scandal-tarnished socialite Madame Clessi (Dane Figueroa Edidi) and the Veiled Woman (Tuyet Thi Pham), who’s privy to a soap-opera-worthy strand of Alaide’s family history.
Why is Alaide obsessed with Madame Clessi? Who are the prostitutes (Stefanie Garcia and Aniko Olah) who slink around in red-and-black brothel attire? Has murder been committed, and if so, by whom? These and other questions eddy around, perhaps remaining unresolvable in the play’s phantasmagorical world.
The effect reportedly wowed 1940s Brazilian audiences bred on decorous naturalistic comedies, but it may feel less fresh and zesty to 21st-century U.S. theatergoers, accustomed to non-linear, surreal and oblique aesthetics from sources as wide-ranging as pop music videos, TV’s “Lost” and works by Samuel Beckett and Sarah Ruhl.
Still, you have to relish the resonant visual imagery, which includes film noir shadows, a spookily floating umbrella, a frozen tableau of newspaper readers and projected film footage of 1940s cars that sometimes runs in reverse. (David Crandall and Fly Steffens designed the projections.)
As for the acting: Rand brings assuredness to his range of disconcerting characters, and Frank Britton and Sue Struve turn in poised portraits of Alaide’s parents. The other performances — including Spears’s mood-swinging Alaide — might, in another play, seem too broad or superficial. Here, they merge smoothly enough with an intriguing but ultimately wearying dreamscape.
Wren is a freelance writer.
By Nelson Rodrigues. Translated by Joffre Rodrigues with Toby Coe. Directed by Rebecca Holderness; sound design, David Crandall; costumes, Erik Teague; properties, Kristen Pilgrim; assistant to the director, Kristy Simmons. With Michael Kevin Darnall and Rafael Sebastian Medina. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $15-$35. Through March 9 at Spooky Action Theater at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. Visit www.spookyaction.org or call 202-248-0301.