“I like the look of agony, because I know it’s true,” says the murderous heroine of the new play “No. 731 Degraw Street, Brooklyn.” If you recognize that line as Emily Dickinson, then this Victorian-era, true-crime drama is for you.
Playwright Claudia Barnett candidly subtitles the play “Emily Dickinson’s Sister,” although she doesn’t mean that literally. The subject of her drama is Kate Stoddard, also known as Lizzie King, who killed her lover Charles Goodrich in 1873. For Barnett, Dickinson’s verse is an empathetic lens that widens the view on Stoddard’s tabloid story. The play, therefore, is peppered with poetry.
“No. 731 Degraw Street” is getting its professional premiere at Venus Theatre, the female-focused troupe that has been doing business since 2006 in a 30-seat Laurel storefront called the Play Shack. The high-minded script might land best with Dickinson buffs able to spot the verses as they tumble off troubled Kate’s tongue, but that’s not the only hook. The show develops a reasonably effective nervous tension, thanks to the criminal intrigue and Ann Fraistat’s calculatedly unglued performance as Kate.
Barnett’s fancy plotting starts like a mystery, revealing the body and going slightly Goth as Kate fingers up a dollop of Goodrich’s blood and drops it in her locket. Act 1 then moves backward in time, slogging through jittery Kate’s fraught relationship with the controlling Goodrich (played a little too dryly as an arch cad by Matthew Marcus).
Act 2 is aftermath, with Kate trying to escape but ending up in the insane asylum, another 19th-century madwoman in a sort of attic. “I felt a funeral in my brain,” Kate murmurs in one of the many instances when Barnett has her doomed protagonist channel Dickinson. “Your poems are gloomier than this furnace,” a fellow female inmate grouses at one point.
The spare show gets its Victorian aura largely from the language, reinforcing the period with layered dresses and lace-up boots. Director Deborah Randall, Venus’s founder and artistic director, includes streaks of steampunk in the tatty tailoring on some of the costumes and in her own blue-dyed hair as she plays a range of supporting characters.
Amy Rhodes appears in nearly half a dozen roles, too. Although this aggressive doubling makes sense in the tiny Play Shack, it also makes you wonder what a more expansive production might feel like.
As is, the show’s trump card is Fraistat, who thrives in the tight quarters. Dressed like a frazzled damsel with her shoulder straps dangling (Randall is credited with the costumes), Fraistat’s Kate is grippingly quick, speaking with speed and making you fear for whatever might be racing through her fevered character’s mind. Fraistat impressively veers through the hairpin curves of language in “No. 731 Degraw,” more often than not making Barnett’s tactics pay off.
by Claudia Barnett. Directed by Deborah Randall. Lights, Kristin Thompson; sound, Neil McFadden; set, Amy Rhodes. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Tickets $20. Through Dec. 1 at the Venus Theatre Play Shack, 21 C St., Laurel. Call 866-811-4111 or visit venustheatre.org.