The cast of Mr. Spacky ... Wolves. Photo by Matt Chaboud
Playwright: Emily Schwartz
At: Strange Tree Group at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division
Phone: 773-814-6163; $20
Runs through: June 23
BY JONATHAN ABARBANEL
About 65 minutes into this 80-minute show, the cast allows the audience to choose between a joyously happy ending and a gruesomely awful ending. Although the opening night crowd voted overwhelmingly for the happy ending, the company performed the awful ending, leading one to believe that there isn't actually a happy ending to perform. In other words, they only have half of what they offer.
Indeed, the entire show—which is stylishly gotten-up and performed—is only half a show, just one act of what should be a two-act play. Mr. Spacky ... Followed by Wolves promises more than it delivers, yet what it delivers is tantalizing. Strange Tree and author Emily Schwartz don't need to reconceive the work; they need to finish it.
It may be that Schwartz and director Carolyn Klein haven't decided what they want the show to be, besides highly visual ( which it is ) . They draw on several 19th-century theatrical sources, including melodrama and burlesque melodrama, ballad opera and French Grand Guignol, with a nod to lesbian romanticism. A play with music—not truly a musical as billed—Mr. Spacky's appealing seven-piece band ( vs. four-person cast ) veers between folkloric junk band and the Tiger Lilies ( which isn't that great a veer ) .
The setting could be British or American, but it's circa 1900 in a country cottage beyond a city where war rages. The heroine, Miss Elizabeth Lyonn, arrives unexpectedly to marry a soldier who has wooed her in the city. He isn't there, so Miss Lyonn is hosted by her sinister sister-in-law presumptive, the sister's half-a-deck daughter and the half-a-deck village preacher, Mr. Spacky, who believes he is pursued by wolves.
The difficulties are: ( 1 ) the war is a meaningless and unnecessary red herring that doesn't affect anything; ( 2 ) Mr. Spacky's imaginary wolf pack only makes for a long title, another red herring in which ( to mix zoological metaphors ) the chickens never come home to roost; and ( 3 ) George—the would-be groom—is missing in action. The play cries out for George and for the first half of the story in which George woos Elizabeth, who then abandons all she knows to be with him. Such a two-act play would have the true structure of a 19th-century romance and of melodrama.
With the gruesomely awful ending provided, Mr. Spacky bends towards Grand Guignol ( the 19th-century equivalent of slasher movies ) more than anything else. Strange Tree should follow that impulse, laying on the violence, the shock and awe of mayhem, and luridly graphic special effects involving bodily parts and blood. Now that, given a tongue-in-cheek approach and a few more songs, would be a helluva show! In theater, you must never do things by halves.