Venus Theatre's latest production, the premiere of "731 Degraw-street, Brooklyn or Emily Dickinson's Sister,"
starts with a dramatic ending and goes backward and forward in time, opening with gunshots and a young man's dead body sprawled on the stage.
The opening left the theater tensely silent as the audience seemed to lean toward the stage in anticipation of where the story would go. They had to wait, a bit long at times, as the plot progressed while four actors changed into different costumes behind stage, and those playing ensemble roles changed the staging to music with a funky beat.
Set in Brooklyn in 1872, this tense and emotion-filled play was written around the true story of Lizzie Lloyd King, a mentally challenged woman of numerous aliases, including the name used in the play, Kate Stoddard. The troubled Kate, played by Venus Theatre regular, Ann Fraistat, answers a relationship ad in the newspaper and falls in love with Charley Goodrich, who owns numerous housing units on Brooklyn's Degraw Street. As in the actual story, in the play Goodrich tricks Stoddard into thinking they are married until he tires of her and reveals his deception.
"It's over and I wish you'd vanish Kate. … You're not pretty anymore, and I'm in love with someone else who's beautiful, wealthy and sane," says Goodrich, played by Matthew Marcus, who has appeared in other Venus Theatre productions.
In real life, Kate allegedly shot Goodrich three times in the head. She was declared unfit to be tried and ended up in a mental institution.
In the play, there is no question that Kate shoots Goodrich. She then lovingly cleans up the blood and puts drops of it in a locket that she wears around her neck.
The sparse stage has hats of all styles on racks along walls. Kate, a milliner, dons one that seems to perfectly fit her personality.
Testament to her mental illness, before she prissily leaves the room in which she has propped up Charley near the fireplace, she asks him, "What do you want for dinner?"
The play, written by Claudia Barnett and directed by Venus Theatre founder Deb Randall, does a good job of portraying Kate as a disturbed woman. It also cleverly brings out the pitfalls and pain that women who find themselves in abusive relationships experience. Like many physically and verbally abused women, Kate never stops loving Charley, even when she is in jail awaiting trial. She tells the other inmates, "Kill me please, and I'll join Charley in heaven."
Barnett, who teaches playwriting at Middle Tennessee State University, said she took liberties with historical facts, but many of the scenes, such as the jail tea service, and dialogue came directly from newspaper articles covering the infamous shooting, police reports and other documents.
"I got most of the information from the New York Times, which back then was so biased in its reporting," Barnett said. This is her third play staged by Venus Theatre.
As for the production itself, Barnett added, "I thought it was great. I liked how Deb took risks by pushing some moments to the extreme. She also designed wacky hats and turned each woman into a hat and vice versa. I loved them and the costumes she made, also."
The period costumes are colorful and flamboyant and give the women a sense of flair as they swish around the stage in laced-up, calf-length boots.
When asked about the play's reference to poet Emily Dickinson, Barnett pointed to Dickinson's poems that Kate recites in the play.
"There was beauty in Kate, and her beauty combined with the beauty in the poetry," Barnett said.
The real-life Kate was educated and highly intelligent, but her mental illness dominated any possibility of a literary genius emerging. Randall said channeling Dickinson also added a "what if?" to the mix.
"What if the same artistic brilliance [of Dickinson] lived in someone that did not have the nurturance or class status to support that?" Randall said. "What if Kate had been born to better parents?"
The plays continues through Dec. 1 at Venus Theatre, 21 C St. For tickets, go to venustheatre.org or web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/243.