Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

appleton.jpgSitting in the audience at PS 122, gazing out at the barely-adorned stage, taking in the sound of a piano played by a woman dressed in Victorian clothing, one can easily feel the pleasure of having stumbled onto something that few know about. But with PS 122 being one of the city’s premier avant-garde performing art showcases, and the show having won U.K. critics’ accolades and several awards after appearing in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, any sense of having “discovered” 1927’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is of necessity false. Similarly with the Under the Radar Festival in general, which is now in its fourth year and whose organizers brought this show Stateside: it’s a great idea that has been pulled off better each time around, but it’s hard to call anything “under the radar” by the time it’s been included.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is one of the more traditional offerings in this year’s festival, which also featured such novelties as a “play” in which the audience members are the actors and one in which lines are overheard via earpiece at a ferry terminal. BDDBS, on the other hand, keeps with the current vogue off-Broadway and in art galleries for mash-ups of video and acting, though in this case there is a twist, which is that the video is an old-fashioned black-and-white projection (created by Paul Barritt, also the co-director) with which the cast sometimes interacts. This approach is nothing new in itself; HERE presented a much more physically daring take on the idea with the wonderful two-actor neo-clown caper All Wear Bowlers a few years ago. Regardless, BDDBS is cleverly conceived and sharply performed, with the use of curdled Victorian theatrics shown through silent-film-era aesthetics providing an intriguing foil for 21st century sensibilities.

The show consists of ten brief tales, none of them really linked apart from their severe look and their mordant, morbidly funny plot arcs. In the all-animated segment titled “Deep Fried,” for example, the Crabtree family fries everything in their home, an endeavor that leads to a delectably macabre finale. Suzanne Andrade, the writer and co-director, supplies deadpan narration that really puts the edge on the dark humor of it. Later, in “The Lodger,” the two actresses (Andrade and Esme Appleton, who also designed costumes) portray disturbed, disturbing young twin sisters who watch the man boarding in their house come to a gruesome demise. And in “The Misadventures of Frau Helga,” the most silent-film-like of all the bits, including overwrought, hyper-punctuated intertitles!!, a girl wanders into the forest and is murdered. In a few short sequences the composer-pianist, Lillian Henley, gets to step out of her role providing background music, but the most successful, unique-seeming bit is one of the first, when Appleton interacts wordlessly with terrifically stark, spare animation to illustrate a cat’s nine deaths. Much more than the other segments, which end up favoring either animation or acting, this one seems to bring something unexpected to the table. It is not so much an explicit collaboration between the two art forms as a new form that draws on them but is forging its own identity as well.

BDDBS is brief, running just about an hour long, and each story is well paced to keep things moving and interesting. From beginning to end, many elements of the production seem familiar, but the script and acting throw the audience off-kilter time and again by defying the expectations bred by that familiarity. 1927 is a young company with clearly multitalented members, and with BDDBS, in its first trip across the pond, it has shown itself worthy of being on theater lovers’ radar. - Mallory Jensen

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea plays at PS 122 (150 First Ave.) through Jan. 27. Performances Tuesday – Saturday are at 8:00 pm, Saturday and Sunday at 5:00 p.m. Tickets are $25 each.

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Ms. Jensen is a writer in New York who works in book publishing when she is not attending an indie play/film/concert.

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